Hosts, Guests, and Parasites

I just returned from my first experience of Court, at least in the sense of that word that applies to the University of Sussex. It was quite different to what I had imagined, especially because it included three research talks. One of them, by Dr Sara Crangle of the School of English was about the Engagement Diaries of Virginia Woolf (many of which have been acquired by the University). This talk began with a fascinating preamble focussed on a short quote from The Critic as Host by J. Hillis Miller. This revolved around the curious shared etymology of “host” and “guest” and their common relationship to “hostia” the latin word meaning a sacrifice or a victim. Being fascinated by the origin and evolution of words I thought I’d have a look for a bit more of the context so here is an extended discussion.

“Parasite” is one of those words which calls up its apparent “opposite.” It has no meaning without that counterpart. There is no parasite without its host. At the same time both word and counterword subdivide and reveal themselves each to be fissured already within themselves and to be, like Unheimlich, unheimlich, an example of a double antithetical word. Words in “para,” like words in “ana” have this as an intrinsic property, capability, or tendency. “Para” as a prefix in English (sometimes “par”) indicates alongside, near or beside, to the side of, alongside, beyond, wrongfully, harmfully, unfavorably, and among. The words in “para” form one branch of the tangled labyrinth of words using some form of the Indo-European root per, which is the “base of prepositions and pre-verbs with the basic meaning of ‘forward,’ ‘through,’ and a wide range of extended senses such as ‘in front of ,’ ‘before,’ ‘early,’ ‘first,’ ‘chief,’ ‘toward,’ ‘against,’ ‘near,’ ‘at,’ ‘around.’”

I said words in “para” are one branch of the labyrinth of “pers,” but it is easy to see that the branch is itself a miniature labyrinth. “Para” is an “uncanny” double antithetical prefix signifying at once proximity and distance, similarity and difference, interiority and exteriority, something at once inside a domestic economy and outside it, something simultaneously this side of the boundary line, threshold, or margin, and at the same time beyond it, equivalent in status and at the same time secondary or subsidiary, submissive, as of guest to host, slave to master. A thing in “para” is, moreover, not only simultaneously on both sides of the boundary line between inside and outside. It is also the boundary itself, the screen which is at once a permeable membrane connecting inside and outside, confusing them with one another, allowing the outside in, making the inside out, dividing them but also forming an ambiguous transition between one and the other. Though any given word in “para” may seem to choose unequivocally or univocally one of these possibilities, the other meanings are always there as a shimmering or wavering in the word which makes it refuse to stay still in a sentence, like a slightly alien guest within the syntactical closure where all the words are family friends together. Words in “para” include: parachute, paradigm, parasol, the French paravent (screen protecting against the wind), and parapluie (umbrella), paragon, paradox, parapet, parataxis, parapraxis, parabasis, paraphrase, paragraph, paraph, paralysis, paranoia, paraphernalia, parallel, parallax, parameter, parable, paresthesia, paramnesia, paregoric, parergon, paramorph, paramecium, Paraclete, paramedical, paralegal–and parasite.

“Parasite” comes from the Greek, parasitos, etymologically: “beside the grain,” para, beside (in this case) plus sitos, grain, food. “Sitology” is the science of foods, nutrition, and diet. “Parasite” was originally something positive, a fellow guest, someone sharing the food with you, there with you beside the grain. Later on, “parasite” came to mean a professional dinner guest, someone expert at cadging invitations without ever giving dinners in return. From this developed the two main modern meanings in English, the biological and the social. A parasite is (1) “Any organism that grows, feeds, and is sheltered on or in a different organism while contributing nothing to the survival of its host”; (2) “A person who habitually takes advantage of the generosity of others without making any useful return.” To call a kind of criticism “parasitical” is, in either case, strong language.

A curious system of thought, or of language, or of social organization (in fact all three at once) is implicit in the word parasite. There is no parasite without a host. The host and the somewhat sinister or subversive parasite are fellow guests beside the food, sharing it. On the other hand, the host is himself the food, his substance consumed without recompense, as when one says, “He is eating me out of house and home.” The host may then become the host in another sense, not etymologically connected. The word “Host” is of course the name for the consecrated bread or wafer of the Eucharist, from Middle English oste, from Old French oiste, from Latin hostia, sacrifice, victim.

If the host is both eater and eaten, he also contains in himself the double antithetical relation of host and guest, guest in the bifold sense of friendly presence and alien invader. The words “host” and “guest” go back in fact to the same etymological root: ghos-ti, stranger, guest, host, properly “someone with whom one has reciprocal duties of hospitality.” The modern English word “host” in this alternative sense comes from the Middle English (h)oste, from Old French, host, guest, from Latin hospes (stem hospit-), guest, host, stranger. The “pes” or “pit” in the Latin words and in such modern English words as “hospital” and “hospitality” is from another root, pot, meaning “master.” The compound or bifurcated root ghos-pot meant “master of guests,” “ one who symbolizes the relationship of reciprocal hospitality,” as in the Slavic gospodic, Lord, sir, master. “Guest,” on the other hand, is from Middle English gest, from Old Norse gestr, from ghos-ti, the same root for “host.” A host is a host. The relation of household master offering hospitality to a guest and the guest receiving it, of host and parasite in the original sense of “fellow guest,” is inclosed within the word “host” itself. A host in the sense of a guest, moreover, is both a friendly visitor in the house and at the same time an alien presence who turns the home into a hotel, a neutral territory. Perhaps he is the first emissary of a host of enemies (from Latin hostis [stranger, enemy]), the first foot in the door, to be followed by a swarm of hostile strangers, to be met only by our own host, as the Christian deity is the Lord God of Hosts. The uncanny antithetical relation exists not only between pairs of words in this system, host and parasite, host and guest, but within each word in itself. It reforms itself in each polar opposite when that opposite is separated out, and it subverts or nullifies the apparently unequivocal relation of polarity which seems the conceptual scheme appropriate for thinking through the system. Each word in itself becomes separated by the strange logic of the “para,” membrane which divides inside from outside and yet joins them in a hymeneal bond, or allows an osmotic mixing, making the strangers friends, the distant near, the dissimilar similar, the Unheimlich heimlich, the homely homey, without, for all its closeness and similarity, ceasing to be strange, distant, dissimilar.


4 Responses to “Hosts, Guests, and Parasites”

  1. Anton Garrett Says:

    The etymology is fascinating – you can see the common link between ‘host’ and ‘guest’ in ‘ghost’, which I hadn’t known. I’d send the rest to Alan Sokal for refereeing…

    Re the Christian connotations: it is a Reformation issue whether a service of Holy Communion is or is not a sacrifice – Catholics say Yes, protestants say No. But the Lord-of-Hosts title for God (Yahuweh Sabaot in the Hebrew) is a completely different use of the word ‘host’, being the same as a “multitude of the heavenly host” in Luke 2, the nativity narrative often read at Christmas from the King James Bible. It actually refers to the forces of the Lord, in the same sense as the armed forces of a nation.

    • telescoper Says:

      Yes, the use of “host” to mean an army has a distinct etymology. We get the “host” discussed in this piece from the latin hospes via the Old French “hoste”. In the sense of “a great multitude” it comes via Old French “host” from the latin “hostis” meaning an enemy.

      In case anyone is interested and wondering if “hostage” is connected with either of these, the answer is strictly no as it comes from latin obses obsidis a hostage through Old French otage. However I have a feeling that obses and hospes share a common ancestry in Sanskrit, so I conjecture that it is not an independent word if you go back far enough.

    • telescoper Says:

      ps. I’ll also pass on the critical theory part.

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