Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Multi~ Vs Poly~

The other day a student asked me what the difference between the prefixes "multi-" and "poly-" was, and if they were interchangable. Well I knew they were synonymous (have the same meaning) but they are not intrchangeable and I didn't know why. Well I did some research and it turns out, multi- is derived from Latin & the words to which it is prefixed tend to be from Latin too. (as in multilinguist) poly- is from Greek & the words to which it is prefixed tend to be from Greek (as in polyglot, which is essentially the same as multilinguist). When the words were created, it seems that hybrid Greek-Latin forms were undesirable, though there are some examples like monolinguist (hybrid version) & monoglot (Greek version).


  1. Speaking as a scientist, poly sounds like being made of numerous and the same units. Polyethylene is made of a number of ethylenes as you know. If there are a material made of only five ethylenes, scientist wouldn't call it polyethylene. On the other hand, multi sounds like small number of and countable things which are different each otehr. I use a word "multifunction" at work, but that usually means two to ten functions, fifteen at most. "Multicolor" is also a good example. So, I think they are slight different and not interchangeable.

  2. Very interesting comment Masa. So poly- feels like many of the same thing, where as multi- feels like many different things. It's a nice idea. How we as individuals 'feel' about words has a very big influence on our word choice. Two people will often give you conflicting interpretations of the same vocabulary.

    We have the same situation with prefixes for singular mono- for words that come from Greek and uni- for words that come from Latin. There are as always several examples that break these rules, because... well... English is CRAZY!!!

    Also "function" comes from Latin functionem (nominative functio) so multifunction & unifunction.

    Ethylene is more difficult, Ethyl is a German combination of the word "Ether" (aether in Latin which mean upper air & aither in Greek which means to glow or burn, so the Latin probably stems from the Greek but they have different meanings hmmm...) "yl" which is Greek for matter or substance and "ene" which is a Greek feminine suffix that means origin or source. That means Greek has the most points in this word so we get polyethylene and monoethylene (I suppose... does chemistry tend to use words with Greek origin?)