Updated: Nov 16, 2020
Oh what a wonderful word! I suppose I should have written about this at Halloween, but better late than never —
Ok, we all recognize cephalo-, yeah? It’s greek for head, and you learned about it in 8th grade biology, right? — cephalopods! — ‘head-foots,’ like the octopus and squid, who i guess are thought of as having their feet right around their heads... making tentacles more like toes than arms, according to whatever scientists invented that word. Acephalic means not having a head, dicephalic means having two heads. And let’s not forget encephalitis, infection of the inside of your head; lovely words, all of them.
-aphore is a great suffix I had to read up on, I’ll be gleefully doing a run down on that, but first let me stop holding you in suspense, here is the definition of a cephalophore: it’s a person who carries their severed head around with them… not just a beheaded person, a person who actively carries their head around after being beheaded.
Frequently the cephalophore’s severed head even continues to speak. In the case of the antagonist of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight (that’s a King Arthur tale written down in the 1300’s), the Green Knight not only walks and talks and then leaves with his head tucked under his arm, but we find him fully recovered later in the story. This giant, seemingly-immortal cephalophore theme appears in stories even older, including a legend about the Irish hero Cuchulainn — 6 centuries prior.
But the most frequent cephalophores are to be found among the ranks of Catholic martyrs, more than 100 legendary French saints were martyred by beheading and are said to have walked around carrying their heads; some, like St Denis, went preaching and sermonizing even as they walked to the place where they wished to be buried. Nine-year-old St Just of Beauvais handed his talking head to his father asking him to take the head back home so his mother could kiss him goodbye.
Now, on to the business of exploring the other half of that word, -aphore, from the greek ‘phero’, to bear or carry. I love how the words we are most likely to know built with this ‘phero’ are generally not as direct, not as physically obvious as the ‘head-carriers’ and yet that image of the martyred child handing you his still talking head does a great job of conveying the concept — these ‘aphore’ words are all about transmitting ideas, feelings or information.
Semaphore is probably the most obvious word built with -aphore; the greek word sema- gives us ‘semiotics’ the study of signs and symbols and semaphore is the ‘flag-alphabet,’ a means of transmitting information over line-of-sight distance by waving flags. If you are transported with joy, carried away with intense happiness then you are experiencing a state of 'euphoria' (eu- means good, wellness). And a 'metaphor' is a literary device that transfers meaning across meaning… that is, it bears the idea of one thing to your mind with the image of another thing… yeah, I still think St Just is just a great metaphor for the concept of what a metaphor is… like… that’s so meta…