Notes from a Linguistic Mystic

Alright, as usual, I’ve been neglecting the mystic side of this site. So, I’m going to talk a little bit about a particular morpheme (unit of meaning) which seems to come up frequently when one trolls the more mystical side of the internet: the suffix -mancy.

-mancy is what’s called a ‘derivational’ suffix, meaning that it is used to create new words by attaching to an existing word. Usually, these suffixes add a set meaning to a word. For instance, another derivational suffix, ‘-ness’, turns an adjective into a noun which describes a characteristic. So, we take “red” and add “-ness” to get “redness”, the quality of being red.

The function of the suffix -mancy is to indicate “using something as a means of divination (the telling of the future)”. So, we take a word like carte (an Old French word for ‘card’), and then tack on -mancy. Suddenly, we have “cartomancy”, defined as “using cards as a means of divination”, for example, reading the Tarot.

Etymology

Where does -mancy come from? One source, The Skeptic Report article “Divination: A Mancy for every Fancy” (great title), gives the etymology as:

…Many of these are described by words that end with the suffix –mancy, which comes to us from the old French word mancie, which in turn comes from the Greek mantis, meaning ‘prophet’.

However, the Oxford American Dictionary traces the word back to a different Greek word:

ORIGIN from Old French -mancie, via late Latin -mantia from Greek manteia ‘divination.’

I wouldn’t be shocked to find out that mantis and manteia _are somehow related, if not different forms of the same root. Also, it’s worth noting that this Greek word _mantis ‘prophet’ in the first etymology is still present in Modern English, in the form of the “Praying Mantis”, a type of insect.

Although the trail begins to blur several languages back, it’s fairly obvious that this origins of this suffix came up through Greek, then Latin, then went into Old French, when it was finally borrowed into English. It’s traveled a long way to get here.

Usage

This ‘mancy’ suffix occurs in many places to mark different divination methods. Necromancy is the occult practice of summoning the dead to gain knowledge about the future (necro is a Greek word borrowed into Latin which means ‘death’). Astromancy is an old term for Astrology, charting the stars for information about the future. You’ll recognize “astro” from “astronomy” and “astronaut”, it’s a Greek root which generally refers to stars or space.

Apparently, it can be used with nearly any Latin root to describe whatever sort of divination somebody’s bothered to perform. This site lists many other uses of the term, and discusses such obscure forms of divination as ‘nephromancy’ (the act of analyzing the kidneys of a sacrifice for divinatory purposes) and even ‘chalcomancy’, which is apparently a manner of divination performed by striking brass and copper bowls. Regardless of the specific root, though, you can be fairly sure that any time you stumble across this ‘mancy’ suffix, there’s divination afoot.

It’s also interesting to note that this suffix is still being used to create new words today (in Linguistic terms, it’s still ‘productive’). I got 32 hits on google for “blogomancy”, and more than 200 for “webomancy”. Considering the term “blog” has only arisen in the past few years, it’s safe to say that “-mancy” has stuck around as an independent suffix, and will likely be around for us to use for years to come. Perhaps -mancy’s continued popularity could even be used to predict the future of other Latinate suffixes in English. Anybody up for a little bit of Mancimancy?


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