In a Word: “Proto-” and a String of Firsts

The word part “proto” etymologically binds vocabulary from science, diplomacy, drama, and technology together.

3D rendering of protozoa

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

One of the beautiful things about exploring etymology is discovering the invisible threads of language and history that bind together modern words from different disciplines. One of those threads is in the form of prefixes that get reused within the language.

Proto- is one of those reused prefixes. It stems from the Greek protos, meaning “first,” the prefix can mean “first” but also in a broader, more abstract sense, is used to indicate “original, earliest, primitive, or parent.”

What follows, then, is a short list of “firsts.”

Protagonist

When the proto- prefix is followed by a vowel, the final o is dropped, which means protagonist is really proto- + -agonist (or, in Greek, -agonistes). The ancient Greeks are well known even today for their love of the dramatic arts, so the word protagonistes to describe a production’s lead role goes back a long way.

In Ancient Greek, an agon was a struggle or a contest (and, yes, the source of agony), and an agonistes was a competitor, but the word was also adapted to the stage to refer to an actor. A protagonist, then, is the “first actor” — though today it word refers to the lead role, not to the person performing that role.

But often enough, that actor’s name will be the first one to appear on the movie poster.

Protocol

What is protocol the first of? The col traces back to the Greek kolla “glue” — the protokollon was the first sheet glued into a papyrus scroll. In Medieval Latin, it became protocollum, referring to the first page of a manuscript, on which were written the book’s contents and errata (and therefore one of the actual last pages to be finished). In both Medieval Latin and French (prothocole), the meaning evolved through “rough draft,” then “original diplomatic document,” then “any diplomatic document,” and then finally to “formal diplomatic etiquette,” the meaning the word had when it was adopted into English at the end of the 19th century.

Perhaps surprisingly, the concept of protocol as “conventional proper conduct” — in the sense that there can be a protocol for weddings, vaccinations, and other nondiplomatic actions — didn’t come about until the 1950s.

Proton

The word proton was based on the model of electron, a word coined in 1891 by physicist George J. Stoney to name a theoretical atomic particle. (Its existence wasn’t verified until 1897 by physicist J.J. Thompson.)

In 1920, when the word proton first appeared in print, scientists were using the word to describe the entire nucleus of a hydrogen atom — discovery of the neutron particle was still 12 years away. A common hypothesis at the turn of the century was that hydrogen was a constituent of all other elements, making it, in a sense, the “parent element” of all other elements, or a “basic element” that made up all other elements. It’s believed that this is why the proto prefix was used when the word was made — a coinage usually attributed to Ernest Rutherford.

Bonus fact: How are electrons etymologically related to amber? Find out in “Electricity from Rock to Shock.”

Prototype

The type in prototype traces back to the Greek typos “impression, mold.” (Typos itself derives from the verb typtein “to strike or beat,” which also evolved into the type of typewriter.) Today, a prototype is a first version of an object after which other versions are modeled, but in the past it could also simply refer to a “primitive form” of something, hence the proto-.

Protozoa

The Dutch scientist Antonie van Leeuwenhoek — considered the father of microbiology — was probably the first human being to see a single-celled organism up close, through microscopes he created from simple lenses in the 1670s. At the time, he referred to them as animalcules (“tiny animals”), a word he had coined and which he used to describe all sorts of microscopic lifeforms that were invisible to the naked eye.

By 1818, our knowledge of the abundance of minute life on this planet had expanded along with microscope technology. G.A. Goldfuss recognized that Leeuwenhoek’s class of animalcules was too broad. Believing single-celled organisms were the simplest (or most primitive) class of animal, he called them protozoa (the plural of protozoan), zoia being the plural of zoion, Greek for “animal” and the root of our word zoo.

Featured image: 3d_man / Shutterstock

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