Insignificant Linguistic Mystery: Anaphora

Once upon a time, I learned that seeing -fer or -phor in a word means ‘to carry or bear.’ I love it a lot, I made a great comic about it, everybody’s happy. Yesterday I read Chapter 1 for my Syntax class, and it mentions the term anaphora. Examples of anaphors are himself, herself, itself, and themselves. Hmmm, said the brain. This term carries something, but what does ‘ana’ mean? At first I thought it was a simple negator like ‘a-‘ as in atypical, but no!

‘Ana-‘ has a meaning of its own packed into those little letters, and is found in anachronism, analogy, anagram, and analects. ‘Ana‘ means upwards, backwards, again, and against, depending on the specific word. Anaphors are reflexive pronouns, so they are words that¬†carry back a reference to a previously mentioned person.¬†The girl was pleased with herself at finding the meaning of the word anaphora. ‘Herself’ is a placeholder for the girl, it’s like a low-tech hotlink shortcut back to the front of the sentence to the antecedent (the girl) that’s still the subject later in the sentence. I like it.

Anaphors are weird when you start trying to make rules about their usage. Brianne sang to herself. That works. Herself sang to Brianne does not, so it seems the rule is that the anaphor has to come after the antecedent, which sounds simple enough. However, there are cases (even outside of the Irish ’tis himself’ meaning) that allow them to come first. Pictures of himself always annoyed Bill. Something about having that phrase putting the anaphor in context makes it okay that you’ve turned an antecedent into a postcedent. I need to think a little more before I can make sense of it.

Let myself introduce…myself.

P.S. The morpheme ‘ana-‘ can be easily confused with the Greek ‘an-‘ meaning ‘without or lacking,’ similar to the Latin ‘un-‘. It is used in words like anasthesia, anarchy, anonymous and anaemic. (Without feeling, without ruler, without name, and without blood, respectively.)

October 20, 2011

in anagram,english,Etymology,greek,insignificant linguistics mystery,University of York,Words & Origins

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Robert November 8, 2011 at 10:08 AM

I enjoyed your exposition, which is so well done, and might well be seen as a:
– prolegomenon; (My favorite new word this week).
A good one piques your interest and draws you onward.


1949MoM November 11, 2011 at 6:04 PM



anaris May 17, 2012 at 8:11 PM

some texts use anaphora for references to preceding words, cataphora for references to following words, and exophora for references that are to words that haven’t appeared.

i’m not sure i like this, because though ana- and kata- are opposite in other contexts (anode and cathode spring to mind) it bugs me that one is “back” and the other is “down”.


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