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Pronounced /mastɪˈɡɒf(ə)rəs/Help with pronunciation

Mastigophoros is classical Greek, derived from mastix, a whip, and -phoros, bearing or carrying. A mastigophore was an attendant or officer carrying a whip.

This rare word has celebrated its 200th birthday, having been used in English in a letter from the writer and minister Samuel Parr to his close friend Charles Burney on 12 December 1812. The letter is effusive and academically humorous in the way of one scholar of the time to another, peppered with classical allusions in Latin and Greek.

It may have been some mental association with Parr, who had been a schoolmaster, and Burney, who then still was, but the word was used subsequently as a jocular way to refer to a pedagogue who was over-fond of corporal punishment. Sydney Smith wrote in 1826 of a boy who was trying to look up words in his dictionary while his “mastigophorous superior” frowned over him; another writer in 1832 described how the boys of Winchester College rebelled against their “mastigophorous tyrant”; the reviewer of Sir Walter Scott’s biography of John Dryden in 1842 noted that Dryden was educated at Westminster School under “the celebrated Dr Busby”, who had “mastigophorous propensities” and “who revelled in groans, and tears, and learning”.

Mastigophorous, a bit of obscure academic drollery, is now as dead as dead can be, but the Greek word and its Latin successor remain in the vocabularies of zoologists. The Mastigophora are single-celled organisms that propel themselves with whip-like flagella (another Latin word, singular flagellum, a whip or scourge). The related adjective is mastigophoran.

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Page created 07 Jul 2012; Last updated 06 Mar 2015