Tony Leighton is a Canadian writer happily retired and attempting to help others feel the same.

Vocabuteria: fissiparous

[An ongoing feature designed to improve your vocabulary and mine.]


If you have an ear for the language, and you are me, you like to think you’ve heard most words once, especially if they are even remotely in circulation. And thus, I read “fissiparous” with the shock of non-recognition. It jumped out at me from The New York Times as if planted by a trickster. Yet the article is serious — on the possible destruction of the Western world politically — and the author is clearly not making fun. “Fissiparous" means tending to break or split into parts; divisive. It started out in biology as a way to describe organisms that split (like bacterium). It jumped into the figurative just after the American Civil War. Is it needed? Are there substitutes? Punch it into and you will come up dry. At, you’ll find “separatist,” “breakaway,” and “independent.” They seem to dance around “fissiparous” without being satisfactory stand-ins. The Power Thesaurus, a mighty machine, has a longer list of dancing deceivers and one that’s better than the rest: “split prone.” But it’s two words unless hyphenated as a modifier. Okay. Okay. Verdict? It might be my wounded pride, but I’d go with “divisive” because “fissiparous” just seems ridiculous. Those two words even rhyme.

Bad typically begets worse, and a hard Brexit will most likely accelerate every other fissiparous and dangerous trend in British politics: a new push for independence by Scotland and possibly Northern Ireland and Wales; a greater chance of NATO-skeptical, anti-Semitic Jeremy Corbyn becoming prime minister; Britain’s extended absence as a meaningful and active presence on the world stage.

The Rudderless West
By Bret Stephens
The New York Times
Jan. 17, 2019


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