For the purposes of this questtion, let me spell the English word "atopy" as "atopia". I have no idea why the the same kind of etymological background (same derivative on the same Greek word τόπος) has lead to two different endings in English, but that is not what I want to ask here. In many other languages these two words seem to have the same spelling (at the end).

Utopia means an unrealistically perfect place, and the word means roughly "non-place". Atopia is a condition that is not localized in any particular part of the body, and the word means roughly "placelessness". I want to compare the prefixes u- and a- here.

From the point of view of classical Greek, how do the prefixes u- and a- compare? Would they correspond reasonably to the use in "utopia" and "atopia"? Was u- even ever used as a prefix like this in classical or older Greek, or is the derivation a more modern invention?

  • I wonder if the current English ambassador to Europe, or even the Low Countries, writes Latin science-fiction in their spare time.
    – Hugh
    May 11, 2017 at 11:50

2 Answers 2


οὐ is not used as a prefix in Ancient Greek. I've never seen it used as such other than in Thomas More's coinage utopia. I'd guess More may have got the idea from the word οὔτις "nobody" (which is important in Odyssey 9, where it's the name Odysseus gives when asked who he is by the cyclops); this is simply a compound of οὐ "not" + τις "someone". The usual Greek negative prefix is ἀ-, or ἀν- before a vowel. Here is the LSJ for ἀτοπία (there is no entry for οὐτοπία).


I'll second what TKR said. However, you should keep in mind the pun in the word. That prefix u- is supposed to sound like eu, giving us the homophone eutopia, or "good place." In the earliest editions of Utopia, More included the following notice:

Vtopia priscis dicta, ob infrequentiam,
Nunc ciuitatis aemula Platonicae,
Fortasse uictrix, (nam quod illa literis
Deliniauit, hoc ego una praestiti,
Viris & opibus, optimisque legibus)
Eutopia merito sum uocanda nomine.

This was translated and expanded to the following in English:

Me, Utopia, called in Antiquity,
void of haunt and harbor.
Now I am like to Plato’s city,
Whose fame flies the world through.
Yea like, or rather more likely,
Plato’s plot to excel and pass.
For what Plato’s pen has plotted briefly,
In naked words, as in a glass,
The same have I performed fully,
With laws, with men, and treasure fitly.
Wherefore not Utopia, but rather rightly,
My name is Eutopie a place of felicity.

So, while utopia is indeed ou- + topia, the reader will have both prefixes in mind when reading the work.


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