• ontogeny •
ahn-tah-jÍ-ni • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Noun
Meaning: 1. The development of an individual organism through its stages of growth. 2. The study of such development, often restricted to the study of embryology.
Notes: Today's word is synonymous with ontogenesis [ahn-tÍ-gen-i-sis] and is the antonym of phylogeny "the development of a species over time or the study thereof". The adjective, ontogenetic, clarifies the fact that we are talking about genetically determined development. Get your doctor's full attention at your next checkup by asking him or her to verify that your ontogeny is on track.
In Play: Today's word may be most closely associated with the biological myth created by Ernst Haeckel (1834-1919), when he declared that "ontogeny recapitulates phylogeny", in other words, the stages of development of an individual human embryo (ontogeny) reflect the stages of historical development of humans from the single cell onward (phylogeny). Although this notion now seems factually untrue, it is still repeated. Fortunately, Haeckel lived to create the terms phylum, phylogeny, and ecology, which have proven more useful.
Word History: This word is the English adaptation of Modern Latin ontogenia from Greek ont- "being," present participle of eimi "to be" + geneia "producing", so the original meaning of today's word was "producing (a) being". The Greek root gen- "give birth, produce" has found its way into many English words referring to birth, including genes, generate, genesis, and genius. The same root without the vowel, gn-, is found in pregnant, the state of prebirth. In English it became kin, kind, and king, from Old English cyning. German Kind "child," as in kindergarten "children-garden", shares the same source. (Let us generate some gratitude for Tom Myers for suggesting we develop today's Good Word for our series.)