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I'm just interested in knowing if there is any non-arbitrary basis for using prefixes "mono" or "uni" when words are initially being coined. As far as I can tell, they mean the same thing as a prefix. For example, why use "monochrome" instead of "unichrome"?

In a similar vein, what about other words, with prefixes like "bi", "di" or "duo"?

To be more specific, I suppose I wondered if there was any inherit connection between the prefix and its root word; like maybe if the root word is from Latin, the Latin prefix should be used, or something.

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This is a super interesting question! I do wonder if there's any kind of significant rule, or if it's all just random. –  Jeremy Aug 29 '11 at 5:38
    
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3 Answers

I’m gonna have to disagree with @prash, and so I’ll post this as a competing answer, offering an alternative take on The Rule:

  1. The prefix mono- comes from Greek monos, itself rooted in the Proto-Indo European *men- (small). uni- comes from the Latin unus, itself from PIE oinos (and thus related to the Greek oinos, “ace on a dice”; Ancient Greek otherwise used alpha for the number one).

  2. Forming words from mixed Latin and Greek roots used to be frowned upon. In the classical tradition, you would form things either from Greek or Latin, not mix them together.

  3. As time evolved, a number of Greek and Latin roots entered the English lexicon, mostly as suffixes and prefixes. Because they became part of the language in that way, they could be combined with other words, being somewhat free of the older rules: you wouldn’t go forging a brand new words directly from Latin and Greek roots, but you would add a prefix (say, auto) that came from Greek but was now assimilated into the English language, and put it in front of an English adjective (say, mobile, which came from Latin movere through Middle French). And kaboom, you have: automobile. And few frown upon it.

  4. So, what's the current status? It's now mostly a matter of taste. There is no strict rule, and you should form the word that sounds better to your ears.

Wikipedia calls words formed with roots of different languages hybrid words, though I've never really heard the term used. I’d prefer we call them heteroradicals (tip of the hat to JSBᾶngs).

Moreover, the Wikipedia article linked above has a long list of such English words, many of which are very common: homosexual, television, hyperactive, electrocution, bigamy, Minneapolis, etc. It even includes the following two words which have the mono- prefix:

  • monoculture
  • monolingual

TLDR — I usually don't do tldr’s, but this has turned into a general post on the topic while you had a very specific question. So, here's the answer to your very specific point: it's a matter of taste, choose the one that sounds best. If the roots are from the same language, as an added bonus it will please some more people.

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I agree. While "mono" and "uni" may be different sources, they are now part of English. –  David Schwartz Aug 29 '11 at 13:02
    
@Bogdan “when words are initially being coined” (to quote the OP) sounds a lot like creating words to me –  F'x Aug 29 '11 at 19:07
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Mono is from Greek and is the preferred prefix for words with Greek roots. That's why monochromatic exists, and unichromatic doesn't.

Uni is from Latin and is the preferred prefix for words with Latin roots. That's why unidimentional exists, and monodimensional doesn't.

Not everyone knows these rules now, and so, happily combine words with Greek and Latin roots when coining new words. That's why we have monorail.

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If mono is one, and poly is several, what do you make of monopoly? –  Autoresponder Aug 29 '11 at 6:56
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@user11761: it's not the same poly: dictionary.reference.com/browse/monopoly –  prash Aug 29 '11 at 7:01
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Oh ok. poly is from the greek word for 'to sell' and not 'many'. –  Autoresponder Aug 29 '11 at 7:45
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Uni- is used to mean "one; having or consisting of one." Mono- is used to mean:

  • one; alone; single
  • with an extreme, singular character to the point of dominance or exclusion

There is an overlap of meanings, but (for example) you say monopoly and not unipoly; monolithic and not unilithic.

Di- is used to mean "twice; two-; double."
Bi- is used to mean:

  • two; having two
  • occurring twice in every one
  • occurring once in every two
  • lasting for two
  • doubly; in two ways

Also in this case, there is an overlapping of meanings, but bi- is used in cases where di- is not used; for example, you say bimonthly or biannual, but not dimonthly or diannual.

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This is kind of missing the point. Why "di" and not "bi", or vice versa? –  Jeremy Aug 29 '11 at 7:25
    
It has nothing to do with the meanings. It’s monolithic and monopoly because the second elements of the compounds are from Greek λίθος (líthos) 'a stone' and πωλέω (pōléō) 'sell', respectively. –  Brian M. Scott Aug 29 '11 at 7:31
    
I fail to see the point. Are you saying that English doesn't use a prefix derived from Latin with a word derived from Greek, or vice versa? In that case, there should not be a word like monoamine, since amine derives from a Latin word. –  kiamlaluno Aug 29 '11 at 8:09
    
I think kiamlaluno is right. To sharpen the answer a bit: “mono” is reporting an ambient condition, such as “monolingual”, whereas “uni” is reporting something brought about, such as a “unisex” haircut. –  Hexagon Tiling Feb 11 '12 at 9:19
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