Printable Version
Pronunciation: pro-tee-ên Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Changeable, able to take on a variety of shapes, forms, colors, meanings, etc. 2. Versatile, diverse, showing a variety. 3. Pertaining in some way to the Greek god of the waters, Proteus

Notes: Today's word is a useful eponym in many situations, if not confused with protein. Proteanism, the noun for today's adjective, in its original sense refers to physically visible changes in the growth patterns of such protean species as frogs and butterflies. It also indicates visible changes in the appearance of animals like the chameleon or octopus that change colors to match their current environment. The adverb, proteanly, is so rare that you probably should avoid it.

In Play: It is difficult for any species to compete with the human when it comes to proteanism: "Sherlock Holmes was a protean detective known for his panoply of disguises that often caught the unwary off guard." This word is used almost exclusively in some metaphorical sense: "Ricky T. Bridges is a man of such protean political views, it is difficult to say what position he would hold on managing the nation's infrastructure." Leonardo da Vinci, of course, was a man of protean creative interests.

Word History: The eponym of today's Good Word is one of the oldest Greek sea gods, Proteus, who could quickly change his form to escape his enemies. Homer called Proteus the "Old Man of the Sea", perhaps because his name suggests proteios "first, primary", the root of the word protein. In Book 4 of The Odyssey, when approached by Menelaus who wanted Proteus to tell him which of the gods he (Menelaus) had offended, Proteus leapt up and changed into a lion, then a snake, then a boar, a gushing fountain and, finally, into a towering tree. (Today we thank the protean lexical imagination of Gail Rallen for suggesting this word.)

Dr. Goodword,

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