Wednesday, December 21, 2005


The Latin Suffix -Aster

Dipping into Robert Burton's Anatomy of Melancholy (the all-English edition by Floyd Dell and Paul Jordan-Smith), I happened on the following passage (
Philosophasters who have no art become Masters of Arts: and the authorities bid those be wise who are endowed with no wisdom, and bring nothing to their degree but the desire to take it. Theologasters, sufficiently, & more than sufficiently learned if they but pay the fees, emerge full-blown B.D.'s and D.D.'s.
Checking an older edition (London: William Tegg, 1866), I see that Burton wrote the original of this passage in Latin:
Philosophastri licentiantur in artibus, artem qui non habent, Eosque sapientes esse jubent, qui nulla praediti sunt sapientia, et nihil ad gradum praeterquam velle adferunt. Theologastri (solvant modo) satis superque docti, per omnes honorum gradus evehuntur et ascendunt.
The suffix -aster gives the words a diminutive, pejorative tone. A philosophaster is a quack philosopher, and a theologaster is a sham theologian. The Online Etymology Dictionary attributes the coinage of theologaster to Martin Luther (1518), but philosophaster dates back to ancient times. The Latin Dictionary of Lewis & Short gives only a single example of philosophaster, from Augustine's City of God 2.27 (tr. Marcus Dods):
Cicero, a weighty man, and a philosopher in his way, when about to be made edile, wished the citizens to understand that, among the other duties of his magistracy, he must propitiate Flora by the celebration of games. And these games are reckoned devout in proportion to their lewdness.

vir gravis et philosophaster Tullius aedilis futurus clamat in auribus civitatis, inter cetera sui magistratus officia sibi Floram matrem ludorum celebritate placandam; qui ludi tanto devotius, quanto turpius celebrari solent.
But Augustine's opponent Julian of Eclanum also used the word philosophaster to disparage Augustine himself. See Augustine's Opus imperfectum contra Julianum 5.11, where Julian is quoted:
Whence even the famous poet of Mantua [Vergil] is more knowledgeable about natural history than the demi-philosopher of the Carthaginians [Augustine].

unde ille etiam Mantuanus poeta naturalium gnarior quam philosophaster Poenorum.
I can dredge up only a few more Latin words formed with the suffix -aster:For English words formed with this suffix (most notably poetaster), see the lists at Wordcraft and The Phrontistery. Some of the the words in the latter list seem bogus, although I like philologaster, defined as "petty or contemptible philologist." It would be a good name for a blog like this one.

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