Friday, September 9, 2011

Language of Confusion: Ant-agony

The hero of our stories is called the protagonist while the villain is referred to as the antagonist. I can’t believe it’s taken me this long to wonder what the origins of those words are.

Protagonist showed up in the late seventeenth century, after Middle English started to be replaced by Modern. Shockingly enough, it’s not Latin in origin but Greek, coming from protagonists which basically means main character. The prot- part of the word comes from proto—first—and the -agonist part comes from agonistes, which means actor. So literally, the primary actor.

Antagonist isn’t much of a surprise, although it did show up almost a century earlier in Old French. But the origin is easy: ant-, from anti- and meaning against. More interesting is if you look further back into the suffixes’ history. Agonistes is from the Greek agon, or contest, and it’s related to both agony and act.

Is there something deep and meaningful in that? Perhaps. Words are what we make them to be, what we need them to be.

With additional information from Rice University’s Words in English: History.


  1. I love well-defined words. Seriously. Love it.

    Nice blog. New follower. I stopped over from #FF on twitter. Good to meet you:)

  2. Cool! I always find these interesting. :-)

  3. Whoa... I was so wondering about these words just the other day. From now on, I'll try to send you all the words I wonder about via brain-wave. :) Seriously, very cool! Thanks!

  4. Antagonists are very big in my writings these days....

    @stephen: I assume you're not related to a certain neo-con who's presently occupying my country's prime ministership?


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