Daily Archives: February 9, 2010


Suppose you were part of a culture that felt itself in some way threatened by encroachment or assimilation from another culture with which you were in common contact, or that anyway you wanted to maintain your distinctiveness. What might you do?

Well, you could decree that no one in your culture adopt key sartorial or culinary habits of the other culture; that’s been done. You could come up with a variety of ways of doing and being and appearing that are different. But there’s something else you could do that costs less and is perhaps even more fundamental to culture: you could make your language more distinctive, harder for the outsiders to understand. For instance, you could add complexity to the structure of your language; you could add new lexical items; you could add new phonemes.

In fact, this very process has been observed by linguists in Pacific nations (for example Papua New Guinea, where there are many languages in a comparatively small area) as well as in Africa (where there is in many places a similar density of languages). And what is this process of making a language hard to understand, more of an in-group thing, called? The term being passed like a doobie from one linguist to the next is esoterogeny, a word first confected by Malcolm Ross in the late 1980s.

Well, that’s a nice, long, somewhat obscure-looking word, isn’t it? Actually, if you know your Greek roots, you have some good clues to its meaning. You know what esoteric means – Greek eso means “inside”, and esotero is the comparative form (“more inside”); esoteric refers to things that are in-group or secret knowledge, or that are anyway not easy to understand. And ogeny shows up as a suffix on various words (ontogeny, phylogeny) and its more basic form ogen or gen on numerous others (hydrogen, oxygen); the root gen has to do with being born or becoming (and appears with the vowel removed in the word cognate, which I toss about and which means “having the same origin” – it’s not cognate with cognition). So esoterogeny (which will have the stress on the middle o) is origination in, or because of, obscurity or in-groupness.

It has a few nice hints and echoes: besot, teratogen (something that causes birth defects), perhaps ornery, soterology (christology) or soteriology (doctrine of salvation), restore, tosser, Rogaine, energy, gentry, estrogen, oh, well, a whole bunch of different things, any one of which looks like it’s been chopped up and tossed into this letter salad. Seriously, did your eyes almost cross the first time you looked at this word? Why do scholars insist on coming up with this jargon, anyway? I mean, it trips along on the tip of the tongue once you sort out how to say it (“Oh, what’s that called – it’s on the tip of my tongue…”). But couldn’t they come up with something more patent? You know, exoteric?

Well, of course, concision of terminology and a sense of precision give some justification for scholarly language, as does maintaining a certain tone. But no one should be surprised at the existence of this word or the concept it refers to – or the desire to increase linguistic distance. Like, d00d, teh jargonz iz teh r0xx0rz if u want 2 b l33t! Im in ur langwidj 3sot3r0genizing ur wordz…