dialog / dialogue
n. A conversation or other form of discourse between two or more individuals.

Conor brought this up, and when I looked into it I was too entranced to leave it as a mere comment. His post was to a great degree about the rebirth of dialog[ue] as a verb, which hearkens back to Shakespeare but hasn’t seen any real use in that way until politicians and businessmen, with their penchant for superfluity1, occasional fatuity2, resurrected it. My initial twinge of anal-retentive horror at misuse aside, I am genuinely glad for the reintroduction of the form, though I balk at the fact that we’re left to context from which to derive its part of speech.

But all this is neither here nor there. What inspired my curiosity was the various incarnations of the -log[ue] suffix in the English language, and why it’s inconsistently used.

As Conor so deftly points out, dialog[ue] has nothing to do with the prefix di- meaning two; it’s dia-, which means “across,” and legein, meaning “to speak” (Etymology Dictionary). The confusion here comes on multiple levels: as near as I can tell given my limited understanding of Greek, legein (or perhaps lego) is the infinitive “to speak,” but its present progressive (or whatever Greek equivalent) is -logos (λόγος), which is also the root for the many nouns related to words: speech, oration, discourse, quote, story, study, ratio, word, calculation, and reason.

So, dialog is spelled in American with a -ue (generally).

Catalog, then, the preferred spelling of which in America is without the -ue, at least according to my JCPenney Catalog, is ultimately from the Greek katalogos (κατάλογος), which is a list or register, also ultimately derived from a verb; specifically kata (toward) and lego (to count)

Monologue is usually spelled with a -ue, though the shortened form is apparently acceptable here in the states. Confusingly, and this is what likely leads to the behavior which irks Conor so much (presuming that dia+log by definition means a conversation between two people and no more), a monologue is a conversation consisting of a single person3, from the Greek monos (one) and legein “to speak.”

Prologue is a word which I always see with an ultimate -ue; the same with epilogue, though I occasionally see it without said letters in some European texts. These two are easy, as well as being fairly well-known: pro (before) + logos (word or speech); similarly, epi- (in addition) + logos (word or speech). These etymologies are listed with the noun form of logos, but ultimately they, too, derive from the verb legein.

Analog[ue] is another word often spelled without the -ue in America. It’s also a slightly more complicated word, even though we use it every day. How would you define “analog” besides simply “the opposite of digital?” The word takes advantage of a lesser-used meaning of the Greek logos, namely that of a ratio: it’s the Greek άνά, “up to” + λόγος, “ratio”. It also means that it’s a measurement taken from a continuously-changing physical property4

Meanwhile, travelogue is always with the -ue, backformed as it is from monologue.

Ideologue or idealogue is from the French idéologue, this time from the sense of logos as the study of something: meteorology, ideology, embryology, &tc. It, too, is always spelled with a -ue, though this rule is never applied to other words like it; we have meteorologists, not meteorologues; biologists, not biologues (though how cool would that be?).

So why does American English accept the ultimate -ue in some cases and not others? Like most other questions of that sort, the answer is “American English is scattershot.” American dominance in the computing fields likely means that the accepted spelling is a computer dialog and a software program5, whereas the historical dominance of England in serious theatre and literature means we’re talking about a dialogue between characters, a monologue from a single character, as well as prologues and epilogues.

In other words, who the hell knows?

  1. from the Latin super and fluere, “to flow”[]
  2. from the Latin fatuus, meaning stupid[]
  3. Oh, it’s usually directed toward an audience, but let’s not get pedantic.[]
  4. A good example is to compare a CD and a record player: the data on a digital compact disc is made up of binary digits, a discrete number for every measured unit of time, and can’t be subdivided further. In other words, it’s a fix quantity based on sampling. An analog medium such as a record is a physical waveform which has been captured to a different physical medium, and can be represented to a great degree of accuracy by as much data as you would devote to it.[]
  5. Don’t even get me started on the PROLOG programming language[]
§2060 · July 30, 2008 · Tags: , , , ·

5 Comments to “Wednesday’s Word: dialog”

  1. Conor says:

    Fantastic post, as usual.

    We both know I craft fake etymologies as a hobby, so take this with a grain of salt, but I’d always associated the Greek root legein with "to pick out." This definitely fits the sense of "to speak," but says a lot more. This, from the etymology for logos, might illustrate the point more clearly:

    Gk. logos "word, speech, discourse," also "reason," from PIE base *leg- "to collect" (with derivatives meaning "to speak," on notion of "to pick out words"); used by Neo-Platonists in various metaphysical and theological senses and picked up by N.T. writers.

    I’d found this out a while back from looking up the etymology for anthology, which gives a meaning, essentially, of "a gathering or collection of flowers." This root, as far as I can see, is shared by logos, legein, lecture, lesen (Ger.), and handfuls of others.

    OK, now I’ve lost my train of thought. I really need a preview button!

  2. Ben says:

    The Greek legein/logos is a powerhouse word. It can mean a shitpile of different things depending on the context. Your sense of “to gather” is evident in catalog, in which the use of logos is tied to the sense of legein as “to count” or “to gather.”

  3. Conor says:

    I thought I would mention that the trackback didn’t work, was somehow malformed:

    A new comment on the post # "" is waiting for your approval

    Author : (IP: , )
    E-mail :
    URL :
    Whois : http://ws.arin.net/cgi-bin/whois.pl?queryinput=
    Comment:

    Nothing I’m stressed about, but thought you should know in case it’s an issue on your end. Can you confirm trackbacks work for other blogs you link to?

  4. Ben says:

    Hmm, not sure. If it’s anything, I assume it’s WordPress 2.6-related, though I see no tickets for such a problem in Trac.

  5. Nicholas Tam says:

    Being from Canada, instances of "-log" instead of "-logue" are jarring and strange – far more so than other common differences in spelling like -or/-our, and -ter/-tre.

    The only exceptions, not surprisingly, are technological. I’m more comfortable with "analog" than "analogue" when it’s used as the adjective that means "the opposite of digital" (as opposed to the noun, i.e. something is analogue of something else), and I think in "dialog boxes", not "dialogue boxes" (probably because all my documentation, manuals, and books on computing/UI are American in origin). So your conjecture in the last paragraph is probably right: even though America is now a literary/publishing superpower, English conventions have a historical traction there that they don’t when it comes to technology.

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