What does the work ‘pyknic’ mean?

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Increase your vocabulary and you’ll make your writing much more precise. That’s why I provide a word of the week. Today’s word: pyknic….

Whenever I read an unusual-looking word, I often assume it is of Greek origin.

The word pyknic from Olga Tokarczuk‘s marvellous — and very funny — novel, Drive Your Plow Over the Bones of the Dead is one such term.

Here is how Tokarczuk used it:

I saw the blood briefly flood his face — he was undoubtedly the pyknic type, who will eventually die of a stroke.

When I looked it up in a dictionary, I instantly realized, ah, I know people like that. It refers to someone characterized by shortness of stature, broadness of girth, and powerful muscularity (as in the photo of the dog shown at the top of this post.)

Today, we are far more likely to use the word endomorph, a term developed by medical doctor William Sheldon in the 1940s. He was the researcher who said the all human being essentially fall into one of three categories that he called “somatotypes”:

  • Endomorphs:  people with lots of body fat, lots of muscle who tend to gain weight easily
  • Ectomorphs: people who are long and lean with little body fat and little muscle. They have a hard time gaining weight.
  • Mesomorphs: people who are athletic, solid and strong. They’re neither overweight nor underweight.

Of course, some people are a combination of these three types. For example, I’m what’s described as an endo-ectomorph, with high fat storage in the mid section (like an apple) and a thin lower body.

The word pyknic is indeed Greek and comes from  pykn(ós), meaning thick.

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