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  • Paul Anthony Jones


(n.) a guidebook; someone who guides strangers or new arrivals

Such is life these days that just about the only word you’ll come across that contains the Greek prefix xeno– (meaning ‘strange’ or ‘foreign’) is xenophobia. But flick through a dictionary, and you’ll find a lot more besides that.

There is, of course, the gas xenon. It was named by the Scottish chemist William Ramsay in 1898, when he found traces of a peculiar new substance in the residue left over from evaporated liquid air. Not sure what it was, he named it for the Greek for ‘strange’.

Besides that, there’s a xenium (a gift given to a houseguest or stranger), xenodochy (a formal name for hospitality), and xenodochium (a room for receiving guests, or where strangers are made welcome, like a hostel or tavern). And then there’s xenagogue—a word for something or someone tasked with directing or guiding strangers or new arrivals.

So a xenagogue could be a tour guide, both in its human and literary form; what matters here, simply, is its purpose.

But if the first half of the word comes from the Greek for ‘strange’, what about the second?

It comes from agein, a Greek word meaning ‘to guide’. That made an agogos a guider, a director, or an instructor in ancient Greek, which is the root you’ll find here—as well as in the word pedagogue (a teacher), isagogue (an introduction), hypnagogue (something that causes sleep) and apagoge (a demonstration that proves something is true by proving that its opposite it untrue).

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