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Word of the week: philanthropist

Last weekend my daughter (who celebrated her 12th birthday earlier this month) asked me what a philanthropist was. Before answering the question I asked her where she’d come across the word. It was on a web page about Katie Piper who, sadly, was voted off “Strictly Come Dancing” that evening. We were rooting for her and hoped that she would remain in the competition for a while longer. We didn’t know much about her before the series began last month, but are full of admiration for her, for her bravery and achievements. This cannot be said of some of the other contestants who we were unfamiliar with before September.

Rather than give my daughter a simple definition of “philanthropist” I broke the word into its two parts, “phil-” for “lover of” and “anthrop-” for humanity or mankind, and said that it literally meant a lover of mankind, but it describes people who do good works, or give money (or raise money) for good causes. The Oxford Dictionaries website, here, gives this definition: “A person who seeks to promote the welfare of others, especially by the generous donation of money to good causes.”

Later that day I remembered that the word is almost said in “The Wizard of Oz”. At the end, when the Wizard is giving Dorothy’s friends their gifts, he tells the Tin Man that there are people who are always doing good deeds, who are known as “phil-a … phil … philan … “ He gives up on the word and calls them “good deed doers”. I told my daughter about this as well, and for the next couple of days, mostly at mealtimes, continued to give her examples of words that can be broken down into two parts. “Mis” is the opposite of “phil”, so that gives us words like misogyny (hatred of women) and misanthrope (or the less commonly used “misanthropist”), a hater of all mankind. Sometimes the “phil” bit goes at the end of the word, as in bibliophile, a lover of books. If she were learning French or Spanish she might know that “biblio-” usually refers to books, (“bibliothèque” and “biblioteca” are, respectively, the words for library in those two languages).

I have a limited knowledge of etymology (the study of the origins of words). We didn’t study Greek or Latin at school, so I am unable to work out word origins from their ancient roots. If I can work out a Latin or Greek term it will be by connecting it to English words. When I was a little older than my daughter is now, our (classically educated) English teacher was surprised that nobody in my class knew, or could work out, that the name Philip meant “lover of horses”. “’Phil-‘ means lover of,” he told us, “and ‘ip’ means horse, as in hippopotamus, water horse. Surely you knew that?” Nope. 30 blank faces stared back at him, mine included, but the information has stuck, and all these decades later I was able to recount this story as part of my extended explanation of what “philanthropist” means.

We also talked about phobias, as good examples of words that can be broken down into multiple parts. Knowing that spiders are arachnids (and she does, she learnt that at primary school) she knew that arachnophobia is fear of spiders. An arachnophile, if such a word exists, would be someone who loves spiders. The word does exist, but I’ve never heard it in conversation. For a list of other phobias I dug out our 16-year-old copy of “Schott’s Miscellany”, which was always a useful source of lists before we had smartphones. It still is. I pointed out pogonophobia (fear of beards) and anthropophobia (fear of people or society), another word I have never come across in conversation, but which you could work out if you knew what a philanthropist is.

And now I am listening out for other examples of words that you can work out even if you have never heard them before. Two examples have come up in ITV quiz show “The Chase” in recent days. One question asked what a “biblioclast” would destroy, and gave books as one of the three possible answers. If a bibliophile loves books, a biblioclast would destroy them, and a bibliophobe (if the word exists) would fear them. Earlier this evening there was a question about the word “pogonotomy”. Does it refer to washing, shaving or eating breakfast? If you know that pogonophobia is fear of beards then you can work out that that it’s probably to do with shaving. I have shared these examples with my daughter but it’s safe to say that I am more enthusiastic about them than she is. She only wanted to know what a philanthropist is.



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