nee-aht-ê-nee • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun, mass
Meaning: 1. Retention of juvenile characteristics in the adults of a species. 2. The attainment of sexual maturity by an organism still in its larval stage.
Notes: The typical biological example of neoteny can be seen in Mad Magazine's favorite animal, the axolotl. It remains aquatic even after it matures, though it should become a land-dweller like all other salamanders. (I'll bet Alfred E. Neuman didn't know that.) You have two adjectives to choose between: neotenic [nee-ę-te-nik] and neotenous [nee-aht-ę-nęs].
In Play: More recently psychologists have described aspects of the various bohemian countercultures in terms of psychological neoteny. The behavior of the adults in these subcultures reflects many of the social and psychological traits of children, such as playfulness, naiveté, indifference to social norms. (Whoever named the Flower Children of the 60s could have told us that.) Of course, the flappers of the 20s and the Beat Generation of the 50s retained many juvenile traits well into adulthood, too. The time would seem to have arrived when we can use this term casually: "That little red sports car Noah Zarque tootles around in is just one aspect of his neoteny–the man is over 70 years old!"
Word History: This word comes from New Latin neotenia, which was derived from Greek neo "new" + teinein "to extend, stretch". The root here, ten, came to English as thin, but created far more words in Latin, most of which English would seem to have borrowed. We see it in such words referring at some time to stretching or holding on, such as tendon, tone, from Greek tonos "string", and tenor from Latin tenere "to hold", the same word that gave us tenacious. (We are happy that Claude House of Canada avoided neoteny and shared this very mature Good Word with us.)
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