Daily Archives: July 7, 2020

geloscopy

Can you divine what this funny-looking word means?

The -oscopy is the easier part, since we see it in a variety of terms: arthroscopy, colonoscopy, microscopy, horoscopylaparoscopy, spectroscopy… In general they involve taking a look at something, and sometimes doing something to or about what you’re looking at. This -scop- is the same one as in periscope, telescope, horoscope, and assorted other words such as scopophilia; it comes from Greek -σκοπία -skopia, ‘observation’, from σκοπεῖν skopein, ‘look at’, but its various uses in English exhibit some amount of scope creep.

The gel- part might stop you cold at first. Is that the same gel as in gelid, ‘cold’? Which is the same, at root, as in gelatin and congeal and assorted other words tracing back to coldness or freezing? Then geloscopy would be, what, a cold glance? Or a cold read? Or looking at something cold? Or just looking cold?

H, no. Sorry to cast a chill on the idea, but that gel- is from Latin gelare, ‘freeze’ or ‘cause to congeal’ or ‘petrify with fright’. It traces to a Proto-Indo-European root that also descended to Greek γελανδρόν gelandron, ‘cold, chill, frost’, but that Greek root isn’t the source of this gel-.

No, the Greek root that this word draws on is γελάω gelaō (Modern Greek γελώ), verb, ‘laugh’.

So… does that mean that this word, which is funny looking (and also funny sounding, in that the stress is on the o, “jell oss co pee”), also means ‘the state of looking funny’?

No, it’s even more laughable than that. You see, -scopy can refer to looking at something for scientific or medical purposes, but it can also refer to looking at something for purposes of divination – as in horoscopy, whish is time-based divination, or scatoscopy, which is divination by looking at feces (perhaps watching certain TV channels would serve today), or, well, geloscopy, which is divination by looking at laughter.

Looking at? Who has seen the laughter? Not even W.O. Mitchell or Christina Rossetti! Obviously this is the broader sense of ‘look at’, meaning in this case ‘listen to’. But what can you divine from laughter?

You tell me. Don’t say you’ve never listened to how someone laughs and formed expectations of their character from it. It’s as common a clue to their persona as how they shake hands or how they dress. Can it predict what will happen to them in the future? Well… it sets up odds of how you’ll interact with them, anyway. Don’t laugh! That’s part of their future, right?

Besides, divination has also been used for things hidden in the here and now, not just in the future. You can know something about a person by how they’re laughing. Also by when they’re laughing, and at what – or whom. Not so laughable when you think of it that way, is it?