The Grammarphobia Blog

Why “stereo” in “stereotypical”?

Q: Can you tell me what’s “stereo” about the adjective “stereotypical”?

A: The combining form “stereo-” that shows up in such words as “stereotype” and “stereophonic” is derived from stereos, a classical Greek word meaning solid.

John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins says the first English compound noun formed from this word element, “stereometry,” showed up in the 16th century as a mathematical term for the measurement of solid or three-dimensional objects.

English borrowed “stereotype” in the late 18th century from French, where it was an adjective that meant printed by means of a solid plate of type.

In English, the word began life as a noun for a method of printing in which a solid plate (originally of metal and later of paper or plastic) is formed from a mold of composed type, according to the Chambers Dictionary of Etymology.

In the mid-19th century, “stereotype” took on the figurative sense of something fixed or perpetuated without change.

And in the early 20th century, the word took on the familiar, modern sense of a preconceived and oversimplified idea of someone or something.

The earliest example in the Oxford English Dictionary of this usage is from a 1922 essay by Walter Lippmann in the journal Public Opinion:

“A stereotype may be so consistently and authoritatively transmitted in each generation from parent to child that it seems almost like a biological fact.”

Interestingly, the adjective you’ve asked about, “stereotypical,” didn’t show up until the mid-20th century, according to published references in the OED.

The earliest citation is from the July 1949 issue of Commentary: The stereotypical Negro, the unstinting giver.”

But Oxford has entries for two earlier adjectives: “stereotypic,” which first showed up in print in 1801, and “stereotyped,” which appeared in 1849. These two words initially referred to the printing process, but later took on figurative meanings.

You didn’t ask, but we’ll tell you what “stereo-” is doing in “stereophonic,” an adjective that appeared in the 1920s.

Remember, the combining form originally meant solid or three-dimensional when it showed up in the 16th century.

In “stereophonic,” it refers to the lifelike or three-dimensional sound created by having two or more speakers.

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