The ‘phile’ file – The history behind the suffix


I love words. As a logophile, I love the sound of them, the nuance of them, the use of them, and I especially love exploring their derivation and discovering how they entered our lexicon.

In that context, let’s take a look at the many words that include the combining form of “phil” or “phile” and see what we can uncover. 

The -phile suffix and its meaning

We’ll start with “logophile.” A logophile is a lover of words. The term is derived from the Greek words logos, which means “word’’ or “speech,” and philia, which means “love” or “affectionate regard.” 

People who have affection for books are called bibliophiles, cinephiles love movies, while wine lovers are called oenophiles. And people who love people – well, to put a new spin on Barbra Streisand’s classic song, they are “the luckiest people in the world.”

Philanthropy” means “love of humanity.” The term is derived from the Greek words philos meaning “love,” and anthropos meaning “man” or “humanity.” Thus the word “philanthropist” refers to a person who seeks to promote the welfare of others, especially by the generous donation of money to worthy causes.

A cynophile plays with his ‘best friend.’ (credit: Hugo Correia/Reuters)

The term “philosophy” means “love of wisdom.” It is derived from the Greek words philos (“love”) and sophia (“wisdom”). Philosophy is essentially a systematic study of general and fundamental questions concerning topics such as existence, reason, knowledge, value, mind, and language. Maimonides (1138-1204) is one of the most revered Jewish philosophers. He had considerable influence on Jewish thought and on philosophy in general. His most influential work is The Guide for the Perplexed, which seeks to reconcile Aristotelianism with Rabbinical Jewish theology by finding rational explanations for many events in the Bible. 

In a much more specialized domain, philately is the study of postage stamps, stamped envelopes, postmarks, postcards, and other materials relating to postal delivery. The term also denotes the collecting of these items. The word is a combination of the Greek root phil, meaning “loving,” and the word ateleia, meaning “tax exemption.” Among philatelists, the British Guiana 1c magenta (face value one cent) is regarded as the world’s rarest and most expensive stamp. It was issued in limited numbers in British Guiana (now Guyana) in 1856, and only one specimen is now known to exist. Its current owner is the London stamp dealer and publishing company The Stanley Gibbons Group, which purchased the stamp in 2021 for $8,307,000. 

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Expanding our horizons, there is a host of devotees who never cease to revel in the marvels of Mother Nature. A person who feels a strong emotional connection to the natural world is called a biophile. A person who is fond of plants is a phytophile, while more specifically, someone who loves flowers is called an anthophile. And a dendrophile is a person who loves trees and forests. In fact, the name of the ubiquitous house plant the philodendron has its roots in that etymology. The name derives from the Greek word philo, which we know means “love,” and dendron, which means “tree.” Philodendrons were given the name because, according to the sources, these plants are climbers that love to embrace trees.

When the weather forecast calls for rain, out come the pluviophiles. These are people who love rain, followed in hot pursuit by ceraunophiles, who love thunder and lightning. When the temperature drops dramatically, that’s prime time for chionophiles, who love snow and cold weather. Their polar opposites, so to speak, are heliophiles, who love the sun.

In the celestial realm, selenophiles love the moon; umbraphiles never miss an opportunity to experience an eclipse; while nephophiles love looking at clouds. 

And geographically speaking, orophiles love mountains; limnophiles love lakes; and thalassophiles are happiest out at sea. 

And speaking of geography, the city of Philadelphia fits nicely into this discussion. Philadelphia was founded in 1682 by William Penn, an English Quaker and advocate of religious freedom. He named the city Philadelphia, which is Greek for “brotherly love,” derived from the Greek terms phílos (“love”) and adelphos, which means “sibling.” Why that name? In 1681, King Charles II of England granted Penn a charter as part of a debt repayment. The charter included the land that would become the Pennsylvania Colony. However, Penn wanted to remain on good terms with the Native Indian Lenape tribe that had originally settled on the land, so he put the charter aside and purchased the land directly from the Lenape people. After making a friendship treaty with a Lenape chief named Tammany, Penn named the property Philadelphia to express the sentiment of brotherly love. 

Personal names enter into the mix as well. For example, the name Phillip actually means “lover of horses.” It is derived from the Greek word philos (“dear,” “loving”) and hippos, which means “horse.”

The male name Philo, again derived from the Greek word philos, means “lover,” “beloved,” or “friend.” 

Philo of Alexandria, also called Philo Judaeus (20 BCE –50 CE), was a Jewish philosopher who lived in Alexandria in the then-Roman province of Egypt. A leading writer of the Hellenistic Jewish community in Alexandria, he wrote extensively in Greek on the intersection of philosophy, politics, and religion, specifically exploring the connections between Greek Platonic philosophy and late Second Temple Judaism. He maintained that the Bible and Jewish law are a blueprint for the pursuit of individual enlightenment. 

Another Hellenistic Jewish writer was the poet known as Philo (c. 105-35 BCE). He was the author of an epic poem in Greek hexameters on the history of Jerusalem. 

Fast forward to the present. For people who love television, we owe our viewing pleasure to Philo Taylor Farnsworth (1906-1971), the American inventor and television pioneer. He is best known for his 1927 invention of the first fully functional all-electronic image pickup device, the image dissector, as well as the first fully functional and complete all-electronic television system. Farnsworth developed a television system complete with receiver and camera, which he produced commercially through the Farnsworth Television and Radio Corporation in Fort Wayne, Indiana. 

In the world of fiction, Philo Vance is the name of an amateur detective featured in 12 crime novels written by S.S. Van Dine in the 1920s and 1930s. Vance was immensely popular in books, films (1929 -1947), and radio (1945, voiced by José Ferrer). He was portrayed as a stylish – even foppish – dandy, a New York bon vivant with a highly intellectual bent. “S. S. Van Dine” was the pen name of Willard Huntington Wright, a prominent art critic who initially sought to conceal his authorship of the novels. Van Dine was also featured as a character in the books, a sort of Dr. Watson figure who accompanied Vance and chronicled his exploits. On the silver screen, Philo Vance was played by such actors as William Powell, Basil Rathbone, and Paul Lukas. 

And while we’re name dropping, women’s names are entered in the phile file as well. The name Philomena means “friend of strength.” It is derived from the Greek words phílos and menos, which means “mind,” “purpose,” “strength,” “courage.” Alternately, the name means “loved one,” from the Greek word philoumene, meaning “loved.” 

The name Philomela means “lover of of song.” It is derived from the Greek words philos and melos, which means “song.” Hence the word “melody.”

To end on a musical note, the word “philharmonic” is composed of the Greek words philos and harmonikos, essentially meaning “a friend or lover of harmony.” In that context, the word “symphony” is derived from the Greek words syn, meaning “together,” and phone, meaning “voice” or “sound,” thus denoting “playing together.” 

And so, fellow logophiles (which I may assume you are if you’ve read this far), if you are also a melophile (music lover), a cynophile (dog lover), an ailurophile (cat lover), an opacarophile (lover of sunsets), an all-out philophile (one who loves the concept of love, affection, and kindness), or any other type of avid enthusiast – do what you love and love what you do.

Happy Valentine’s Day.■



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