Word families - Vocabulary Builder

The Right Word: A Writer's Toolkit of Grammar, Vocabulary and Literary Terms - Waldram Sarah 2021

Word families
Vocabulary Builder

nicholas: That dear octopus from whose tentacles we never quite escape, nor, in our inmost hearts, ever quite wish to.

Dodie Smith

Dear Octopus (1938)

English belongs to a family of languages (Germanic) that also includes German and the Scandinavian languages. In addition to this, it draws a large number of words from two languages that are not directly related to Germanic, namely Greek and Latin.


Learning to recognise some of the Greek and Latin roots in modern English words can offer important clues as to what the words mean. This in turn enriches one’s appreciation of English, and some of the subtleties at play in the language. To that end, this chapter presents some key word families based on Greek and Latin, as well as a few other roots. Individual words are for the most part accompanied by simple definitions and examples of usage, to enable fuller understanding.

aerial, aerobic, aerodynamic, aerospace

This word family shares the element aer, which comes from the Greek aer, meaning ’air’.

aerial 1. consisting of, typical of, or relating to the air 2. carried out from or involving aircraft • aerial photography

aerobic living or taking place in the presence of free oxygen; relating to exercise taken to improve the cardiovascular system • The bacteria were grown under aerobic conditions.Aerobic exercise increases respiration and heart rates.

aerodynamic designed to reduce air resistance, especially to increase fuel efficiency or maximum speed • The racing car was built with sleek, aerodynamic lines.

aerospace 1. the Earth’s atmosphere and outer space 2. relating to the design, manufacture and flight of vehicles or missiles that fly in and beyond the Earth’s atmosphere • Aerospace medicine is concerned with the stresses experienced by the human body in flight.

androgynous, android, misandry, polyandry

This word family shares the element andr, which comes from the Greek andros, meaning ’man’.

androgynous exhibiting elements that are both masculine and feminine • She had a nice cameo role as an androgynous security guard.

android robot or automaton in the form of a man • Their modest domestic needs were served by an android called Marnya.

misandry hatred of men • The organisation’s latest ad campaign is accused of promoting misandry.

polyandry practice of having more than one husband • studying an island with a tradition of polyandry

anthropoid, anthropomorphism, misanthropy, philanthropy

This word family shares the element anthr, which comes from the Greek anthropos, meaning ’human being’.

anthropoid resembling humans • anthropoid apes

anthropomorphism instance of ascribing human qualities to something not human • As children, we accept talking animals in stories without knowing or caring that it is an example of anthropomorphism.

misanthropy hatred or dislike of people in general • With a scowl or gruff word for all he met, his misanthropy was known to everyone in the neighbourhood.

philanthropy sympathy and concern for fellow humans, or acts that show this • Her interest in helping others started with a second-hand clothes project, and she remained committed to philanthropy her whole life.

antibiotic, biology, biopsy, biotechnology, probiotic

This word family shares the element bio, which comes from the Greek bios, meaning ’life’.

antibiotic substance that kills or inactivates bacteria • Antibiotics have no effect against viruses.

biology the science that deals with all forms of life, including their classification, physiology, chemistry and interactions • human biology

biopsy removal of a sample of tissue from a living person for laboratory examination • The doctors decided to do a lung biopsy.

biotechnology use of biological processes in industrial production • Early examples of biotechnology include the making of cheese, wine and beer, while later developments include vaccine and insulin production.

probiotic substance that contains microorganisms claimed to be beneficial to humans and animals or to promote their growth • Probiotics can be used to help restore healthy digestion after illness.

benefactor, beneficial, beneficiary, benefit, benevolent

This word family shares the element bene, which comes from the Latin bene, meaning ’well’.

benefactor financial supporter of a cause, institution or person • Years later I found out the name of my secret benefactor.

beneficial producing a good or advantageous effect • The exercise should prove beneficial to his health.

beneficiary someone entitled to money or property by a will, trust or insurance policy • Her nephew was the main beneficiary of her will.

benefit something that has a good effect or promotes well-being • They eventually reaped the benefits of their hard work.

benevolent showing kindness or goodwill • a benevolent smile

bel canto, cantata, canto, cantor, recant

This word family shares the element cant, which comes from the Latin canere, meaning ’sing’ or ’chant’.

bel canto style of operatic singing that uses a pure, even tone • her distinctive bel canto voice

cantata narrative composition for choirs, set to music but not acted • His conducting brought out the drama inherent in the arias of the cantata.

canto main division of a long poem • In Canto XXXI of the poem, the course of the narrative shifts.

cantor someone whose job is to sing in a synagogue or cathedral • A rabbi and cantor will lead participants through the Haggadah.

recant withdraw formally a statement made earlier • They were given the chance to recant, they did so, and they went on with their work.

➔ Other words that come from the same Latin source include accent, chant and incantation.

capitation, capitulation, decapitate, per capita, recapitulate

This word family shares the element capit, which comes from the Latin caput, meaning ’head’.

capitation assessment or fee based on the number of people, or ’heads’ • The insurance company pays the doctor a capitation fee for each covered person enrolled in his practice plan each year.

capitulation complete surrender, or the terms of this • They gave in on most of the disputed items, but stopped short of complete capitulation.

decapitate cut off the head • I remember once as a child decapitating my toy soldiers.

per capita for each person or ’head’ • The annual per capita income of this city is £17,000.

recapitulate summarise or repeat the main headings • Let’s recapitulate the steps to take if you are in the path of the storm.

conclude, exclude, include, preclude, seclude

This word family shares the element clud, which comes from the Latin claudere, meaning ’close’.

conclude come to a final decision about something • In the end we concluded we had no option but to collaborate.

exclude prevent someone from taking part in something or entering a place • All members of staff were automatically excluded from the competition.

include make someone part of a group • I longed to be included in their games.

preclude rule something out in advance • Careful screening of applicants should preclude the possibility of the wrong candidates being called for interview.

seclude keep separate or apart • He lived in a secluded villa, away from the prying eyes of the public.

➔ Other words that come from this Latin root include cloister, conclusive, recluse and the medical term occluded, meaning ’blocked’.

anachronism, asynchronous, chronology, ­synchronicity, synchronise

This word family shares the element chron, which comes from the Greek chronos, meaning ’time’.

anachronism something that is out of place with respect to time • The film was set in the Old West, but had some anachronisms, such as a reference to the FBI, which wasn’t established until 1908.

asynchronous not occurring at the same time, or, in computing, involving a data transfer protocol that does not use fixed time intervals • an asynchronous communications link

chronology order in which events occur, or a list of these • Detectives are now working to establish the chronology of events prior to the murder.

synchronicity coincidence of events that seem to be related but are not the cause of one another • Those with an interest in synchronicity will be intrigued by these two simultaneous deaths thousands of miles apart.

synchronise make something happen, work or operate at the same time • Let’s synchronise our watches and be back here again at half past two.

corporal, corps, corpulent, corpus, incorporate

This word family shares the element corp, which comes from the Latin corpus, meaning ’body’.

corporal of the human body; physical • corporal punishment

corps group of soldiers or others with a common purpose • The signal corps set up drill exercises early that morning.

corpulent fat • He’s quite corpulent now so can’t wear his old suit to the event.

corpus (formal) body of texts or writings • the corpus of Shakespeare’s works

incorporate combine with something else • I managed to incorporate the exercises into my daily routine.

➔ The legal term habeas corpus literally means ’You should have the body.’

abdicate, dedicate, indicate, predicate

This word family shares the element dic, which comes from the Latin dicare, meaning ’proclaim’.

abdicate give up a high office formally or officially, especially the throne • The King was forced to abdicate in favour of his brother.

dedicate commit oneself or one’s life to something • He dedicated himself to serving God.

indicate point something out or point to something • A sign indicated the way to the town.

predicate base an opinion, an action or a result on something • Advertising rates are predicated on the newspaper’s circulation figures.

centrifugal, fugitive, refugee, subterfuge

This word family shares the element fug, which comes from the Latin fugere, meaning ’flee’.

centrifugal moving outwards from the centre • The centrifugal force on the roller coaster pushed us to the edge of our seats.

fugitive person who is fleeing • Interpol tracked the fugitive across Europe.

refugee someone who has escaped from something • a boatload of refugees stranded in the Mediterranean

subterfuge something done to evade a rule, escape a consequence, etc.subterfuge employed to hide his secret past

➔ The Latin original of the saying ’time flies’ is tempus fugit, which also shares this root.

gynarchy, gynaecology, misogyny, polygyny

This word family shares the element gyn, which comes from the Greek gyne, meaning ’woman’.

gynarchy rule by women • The gynarchy is subject to the same power struggles as other groups.

gynaecology branch of medicine that deals with women’s health • a professor of clinical obstetrics and gynaecology whose speciality is infertility

misogyny someone who hates women • His constant cracks and putdowns revealed him to be a misogynist.

polygyny practice of having more than one wife • Very few cultures permit or encourage polygyny today.

compel, dispel, expel, impel, propel, repel

This word family shares the element pel, which comes from the Latin pellere, meaning ’beat’.

compel force someone to do something • He was compelled to appear before the court.

dispel to get rid of something such as a false idea • She was eager to dispel any notion I might have that it would be easy.

expel push or drive something out with force • Air is expelled under pressure through special outlets in the machine casing.

impel make someone feel the need to do something • I felt impelled to explain to her why I was there.

propel push someone or something forward • jet-propelled aircraft

repel force back or away • a lotion designed to repel mosquitoes and other biting insects

➔ Other words that come from this Latin root include appeal, push, pulse, repeal and repulsion.

abject, conjecture, dejected, interject, trajectory

This word family shares the element ject, which comes from the Latin jacere, meaning ’throw’.

abject 1. completely hopeless 2. utterly contemptible • More than 700 million people worldwide live in abject poverty.

conjecture opinion based on guessing, or the process of doing this • There has been much conjecture in the press about an impending engagement.

dejected disheartened and depressed, or cast down • The fans felt dejected at the cancellation of the match.

interject say something while another person is speaking • He interjected questions throughout my presentation.

trajectory path followed by something in flight • They did a final trajectory correction this morning and the craft landed right on target.

circumlocution, elocution, interlocutor, locution

This word family shares the element locu, which comes from Latin loqui, meaning ’speak’.

circumlocution roundabout way of speaking, or a roundabout expression • The subject was delicate, and it required a degree of circumlocution to avoid offending the guests.

elocution skill of speaking aloud, or the study of doing this • When I was young my mum made me take elocution lessons.

interlocutor participant in a conversation • He’s only been in office two weeks, so there hasn’t been an interlocutor there.

locution style of speech; word or expression • It’s a distinctive locution that’s only heard in this part of the country.

Note the similarities between this family and the next, both of which derive from the Latin word for ’speak’.

colloquial, eloquent, grandiloquent, loquacious, soliloquy

This word family shares the element loqu, which comes from the Latin loqui, meaning ’speak’.

colloquial appropriate to or reflecting ordinary informal speech • She speaks fluent colloquial Spanish.

eloquent forcefully, fluently or vividly expressive in language • The president of the student body made an eloquent request for better library resources.

grandiloquent using florid or pompous language • Politicians who give such grandiloquent speeches show little understanding of job opportunities in the region.

loquacious overly talkative • The interview programme offers loquacious celebrities an unparalleled opportunity for self-promotion.

soliloquy talking to oneself, especially an instance of this in drama • Hamlet’s well-known soliloquy, ’To be or not to be.’

amnesia, amnesty, mnemonic

This word family shares the element mne, which comes from the Greek mnasthai, meaning ’remember’.

amnesia loss of memory • Excessive alcohol use can lead to bouts of amnesia.

amnesty official pardon to someone who has committed a political crime • We declared an amnesty on behalf of all illegal immigrants.

mnemonic relating to or aiding the memory • I learnt the order of the notes in the spaces on the treble clef using the mnemonic FACE.

amortise, mortmain, mortuary, post-mortem, rigor mortis

This word family shares the element mort, which comes from the Latin mors (mort-), meaning ’death’.

amortise gradually eliminate a debt by regular payments • The loan will be amortised over twenty-five years.

mortmain permanent possession of land by a religious organisation • A clause enabled them to purchase and hold lands in mortmain.

mortuary building where corpses are prepared for burial • The body was embalmed in the mortuary.

post-mortem examination of a corpse to determine the cause of death • The post-mortem revealed the cause of death to be head injuries sustained in the accident.

rigor mortis rigidity that sets into the bodies of warm-blooded creatures after death • estimate time of death from the degree of rigor mortis

parable, parley, parole

This word family shares the element par, which comes from the Latin parabola, meaning ’parable’ or ’story’.

parable story with a moral lesson, with symbolic characters and events • the parable of the loaves and fishes

parley conference of discussion, especially between opposing sides • The parley over the new boundary lasted well into the night.

parole early release of a prisoner on certain conditions that he or she promises to meet • He was allowed out on parole after two years.

The word palaver, which can mean unnecessary trouble or time-wasting talk, comes from the same root, via a Portuguese word.

bacteriophage, oesophagus, macrophage, sarcophagus

This word family shares the element phag, which comes from the Greek phagein, meaning ’eat’.

bacteriophage any of a group of viruses that infect and devour bacteria

oesophagus tube that carries food from the mouth to the stomach

macrophage type of white blood cell that ingests infectious agents in the body

sarcophagus a stone coffin or other container • The ancient sarcophagus was the centrepiece of the Egyptian exhibit.

➔ The Greeks believed that a certain kind of stone consumed corpses and this stone was used to make coffins; hence sarcophagus.

acclaim, clamour, exclaim, proclaim

This word family shares the element clam or claim, which comes from the Latin clamare, meaning ’call’.

acclaim praise someone or something publicly • She was acclaimed the winner by an enthusiastic audience.

clamour loud noise of people shouting together • We could barely hear ourselves speak for the clamour of the crowd.

exclaim say something suddenly and loudly • ’It’s you!’ she exclaimed in astonishment.

proclaim announce something publicly or formally • He was proclaimed leader after winning a secret ballot.

precipice, precipitant, precipitate, precipitous

This word family shares the common element preci, which comes ultimately from Latin praeceps, meaning ’headlong’.

precipice steep or vertical rock face • He stood right on the edge of the precipice, gazing down.

precipitant immediate cause of another thing • a severe asthmatic attack without any apparent precipitant

precipitate bring about suddenly or prematurely • symptoms of the disease can be precipitated by stressful events

precipitous done too quickly • His precipitous reaction just made things worse.

➔ The meanings of precipitate and precipitation that describe rain and snow come from the same Latin root and share the idea of ’falling from a high place’.

concise, decide, excise, incisive, precise

This word family shares the common element cid or cis, which comes from Latin caedere, meaning ’cut’.

concise using as few words as possible • give a clear, concise account of what happened

decide make a choice about something • We had to decide which of the candidates was best.

excise remove or delete something • The paragraph had been excised from the final manuscript.

incisive expressed in a clear, direct way • sum up the situation in a few incisive comments

precise exact and accurate • We don’t yet have precise details of what went wrong.

➔ Other words that come from this Latin root include chisel and scissors.

abrupt, disrupt, interrupt, rupture

This word family shares the element rupt, which comes from the Latin rumpere, meaning ’break’.

abrupt sudden and unexpected • The car came to an abrupt halt.

disrupt stop the normal course of a process or activity • The latecomers disrupted the service.

interrupt halt the flow of a speaker or of a speaker’s words with a question or remark • Wait till Grandma’s finished talking — it’s rude to interrupt.

rupture break, burst or tear something, or become broken, burst or torn • The rock ruptured the bottom of the boat.A blood vessel had ruptured.

circumspect, introspection, prospectus, retrospective, spectrum

This word family shares the element spect, which comes from the Latin specere, meaning ’see’.

circumspect thoughtful and cautious before acting • Officials were circumspect about the type of aircraft involved in the incident and its location.

introspection examination of one’s own thoughts and feelings • We should all take time from our busy schedules for introspection.

prospectus document that describes the major benefits or attractions of something, such as a share offer • The company prospectus outlines the plan to use the proceeds of the offer to finance low-cost residential housing.

retrospective looking backwards in time, into the past • The show is a retrospective of his work over the last twenty-five years.

spectrum range or scale of related things • At one end of the spectrum a work is produced using a computer as a tool, while at the other there is little or no direct human involvement in the process.

➔ The original sense of circumspect is ’looking around’, as someone who was being cautious would do.

geothermal, isotherm, thermodynamics, thermometry, thermotropic

This word family shares the element therm, which comes from the Greek thermos, meaning ’hot’.

geothermal relating to heat produced inside the Earth • energy derived from geothermal deposits

isotherm line on a map connecting points of equal temperature

thermodynamics the branch of physics that deals with heat and motion • attempts to defy the second law of thermodynamics

thermometry the science of measuring temperature • Acoustic thermometry tracks long-term changes in ocean temperature by using sounds transmitted through the ocean.

thermotropic (of plants, etc.) turning towards a source of heat • Most liquid crystals are thermotropic.

ectopic, topical, topography, topology

This word family shares the element top, which comes from the Greek topos, meaning ’place’.

ectopic occurring in an abnormal place • An ectopic pregnancy occurs in a Fallopian tube rather than in the womb.

topical of interest currently or locally • She sprinkled her speech with topical references.

topography detailed mapping of an area or surface • topographical maps

topology the branch of mathematics that deals with surfaces


English, like many other languages, has meaningful units call affixes: letters or combinations of letters that can be added, usually to the beginning or end of a word, to change its meaning in a predictable way. Like roots, many affixes in English derive from Latin and Greek.

Prefixes are affixes that start a word. Instances include anti-, non- and un-, all of which reverse the meaning of a word, changing it to its opposite (for example, able and unable). The prefix nano- indicates something very small, or, more precisely, something divided into parts of a billion (for example, nanosecond).

An affix occurring at the end of a word is called a suffix. The suffix -logy is usually used to create a noun denoting the study of a subject (for example, musicology, dermatology, pharmacology). The suffix -phobia is a sign of a noun meaning the fear of something (for example, agoraphobia). If someone has an inflammation, its name may end in -itis (for example, tonsillitis).

The great advantage of being able to recognise these elements is that it enables prediction of the meaning of a word not encountered before. It also gives a deeper understanding of the word.

The lists below give some of the affixes still being used to form new words in English. Many of the new words are in technical fields, such as chemistry or medicine. Aceto-, for example, which comes from Latin acetum, meaning ’vinegar’, forms compounds such as acetify and acetone.


In the list of prefixes below, note that prefixes ending with a vowel occasionally lose the vowel or change it to another when prefixed to a word beginning with a vowel (for example, octo-octave).

Prefix and meaning

Example words


ambi-, ’both’, amphi-, ’both sides’

ambidexterity, ambiguous, ambisexual amphibious, amphitheatre

Latin ambi, ’on both sides’ Greek amphi, on ’both sides’

biblio-, ’book’

bibliography, bibliomania

Greek biblion, ’book’

broncho-, ’tube leading to lung’

bronchial, bronchitis

Greek brongkhos, ’windpipe’

dys-, ’ill’, ’bad’

dysfunction, dysentery, dyslexia

Greek dys, ’bad’

endo-, ’within’

endogenous, endomorph, endoplasm

Greek endon, ’within’

equi- ’equal’

equidistant, equitable, equivalent

Latin aequus, ’equal’

ethno-, ’people’, ’culture’

ethnocentrism, ethnographer, ethnology

Greek ethnos, ’race’, ’culture’, ’people’

eu-, ’well’, ’good’

eulogy, euphemism, euphoria

Greek eus, ’good’

geo-, ’earth’, ’soil’

geography, geologist, geometry

Greek ge, ’Earth’

haemo- ’blood’

haemoglobin, haemophilia, haemorrhage

Greek haima, ’blood’

hepta-, ’seven’

heptagon, heptameter, heptathlon

Greek hepta, ’seven’

hetero-, ’other’, ’different’

heterodox, heterogeneous, heterosexual

Greek heteros, ’other’

hexa-, ’six’

hexagon, hexagram, hexameter

Greek hex, ’six’

homeo-, homo-, ’alike’, ’same’

homogeneous, homeopathy, homosexual

Greek homious, ’similar’ and homos, ’one’

iso-, ’equal’

isobar, isometrics, isotope

Greek isos, ’equal’

mal-, ’bad’

maladjusted, malcontent, malpractice

Latin malus, ’bad’

mono-, ’one’

monocle, monologue, monopoly

Greek monos, ’alone’

octo-, ’eight’

octave, octogenarian, octagon

Greek octo, ’eight’

omni-, ’all’

omnipotent, omnipresent, omniscient

Latin omnis, ’all’

ortho-, ’straight’, ’correct’

orthodontist, orthography, orthopaedic, orthodox

Greek orthos, ’straight’, ’correct’

pan-, panto-, ’all ’

panacea, pandemic, panorama

Greek pan, ’all’, ’every’

paedo-, pedo-, ’child’

pedagogue, paediatric, paediatrician

Greek pais, ’child’

penta-, ’five’

pentagon, pentagram, pentathlon

Greek pente, ’five’

poly-, ’many’

polygon, polysyllable, polytechnic

Greek polus, ’much’

proto-, ’first’, ’original’

protoplasm, prototype, protozoan

Greek protos, ’first’

psycho-, ’mind’, ’mental’

psyche, psychoanalyse, psychology

Greek psukhe, ’breath, mind, soul’

quadri-, ’four’

quadrangle, quadrilinear, quadruped, quadruplet

Latin quattuor, ’four’

tele-, ’distant’

telecommunications, telephoto, telemedicine

Greek tele, ’far away’

tetra-, ’four’

tetrachloride, tetragon, tetrahedron

Greek tettares, ’four’

theo-, ’god’

theocracy, theology

Greek theos, ’god’

trans-, ’across’

transalpine, transfer, transgender

Latin trans, ’across’

English words that relate to numbers may borrow prefixes from both Greek and Latin, such as Latin quadri- and Greek tetra-, both of which mean ’four’. In cases where there are two possible prefixes, the Greek forms may be reserved for scientific and mathematical terms, though this is not always the case.


Suffix and meaning

Example words


-agogue, ’leader’, ’bringer’

demagogue, pedagogue, synagogue

Greek agein, ’lead’

-ana, ’collection of things’

Americana, Victoriana

Latin -ana, ’relating to’

-arch, ’leader’

monarch, oligarch, patriarch

Greek arkhein, ’rule’

-arium, ’place’

aquarium, herbarium, planetarium

Latin -arium, ’place’

-centric, ’centring or focusing on’

egocentric, ethnocentric, Eurocentric

Latin centrum, ’centre’

-cide, ’killer’, ’killing’

homicide, pesticide, suicide

Latin caedere, ’kill’

-cracy, ’rule’, ’government’

aristocracy, democracy, plutocracy

Greek kratos, ’rule’

-escent, ’beginning’

adolescent, convalescent, effervescent

Latin -escent, participial form indicating ’beginning’

-gamy, ’marriage’

bigamy, monogamy, polygamy

Greek gamos, ’marriage’

-gen, ’thing that produces’

allergen, antigen, hallucinogen

Greek -genus, ’born’

-genesis, ’producing’, ’originating’

biogenesis, mutagenesis, oncogenesis

Greek genesis, ’origin’, ’source’

-metry, ’measurement’

geometry, psychometry

Greek metron, ’measure’

-onym, ’name’, ’word’

acronym, homonym, synonym

Greek onoma, ’name’

-phile, ’one who likes’

bibliophile, Francophile

Greek filos, ’loving’

-phobia, ’irrational fear’

agoraphobia, arachnophobia, claustrophobia

Greek phobos, ’fear’

-rrhoea, ’flow’

diarrhoea, seborrhoea

Greek rhein, ’flow’

-sect, ’divide’, ’cut’

bisect, dissect

Latin sectus, ’cut’

-scope, ’instrument for viewing’

horoscope, microscope, telescope

Greek scopein, ’look’, ’see’

-tomy, ’surgical removal’

appendectomy, dichotomy, vasectomy

Greek tomos, ’cutting’

-vore, -vorous, ’devouring’

carnivore, herbivore, omnivorous

Latin vorus, ’devouring’