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Pandemonium – Podictionary Word of the Day


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The financial markets of late might be seen as a place where pandemonium rules.

I see from a few homespun definitions that pandemonium is “when all hell breaks loose.”

In actual fact things are a little more hopeful than that for two etymological reasons.

First of all the word pandemonium was invented by John Milton in his poem Paradise Lost.  It is one of those words we can trace back to a single person who spun it seemingly out of thin air.

Of course words are the ultimate democratic instruments and so even though John Milton invented this one, he couldn’t keep perfect control over its meaning.

Today we likely do mean that “all hell is breaking loose” on the financial markets, but when Milton came up with the word he meant it as a place name, not a condition of disorder.

To Milton Pandemonium was the capital city of hell.

It was the place of all the demons.

You can see the word demon right there in pandemonium.  So although pandemonium had to do with hell, it wasn’t hell breaking loose, it was hell gathering together.

The second hopeful element wrapped up in pandemonium‘s etymology lies in the fact that John Milton didn’t actually spin this word out of thin air.  He assembled it from components.

Pan– is a standard Greek prefix.  It means “all” or “together.”

There it is in pandemic where all of us get sick, and in panacea the medicine we can take that will make all our ills better.

Then Milton added demonium which was more Latin than Greek.

In Latin demon meant “evil spirit.” So he meant pandemonium to mean “the place of all the demons.”

Now for the second hopeful part.  I’ve said many times on podictionary that the Latin we ultimately got from the Romans was in a good measure based on Greek, since Greek civilization predated Roman dominance.

Demon was one of those Latin words that had been Greek beforehand.

The Greeks must have had a more optimistic outlook because in Greek diamon didn’t mean “evil spirit,” but “divine.”

The deeper root of this Greek meaning is (according to the American Heritage Dictionary) Indo-European where da meant “to divide.”  It was the supreme beings who divided up the good things in life and handed them out to all of the people.

Five days a week Charles Hodgson produces Podictionary – the podcast for word lovers, Thursday episodes here at OUPblog. He’s also the author of Carnal Knowledge – A Navel Gazer’s Dictionary of Anatomy, Etymology, and Trivia as well as the audio book Global Wording – The Fascinating Story of the Evolution of English.

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