The prefix "proto" is found in technical writing, meaning "first" (as in the first form of a chemical compound or biological process). But it's an evocative word for me as a composer when used to refer to the origins, deep in the unconscious, of a creative idea. I call the first sketch of a composition the protocomposition. I would like to know if "proto" is sometimes used this way by poets and writers.

The origin of life and creativity fascinates me, and I think there's mystery there. We can ask small questions like, "How did my composition evolve to get to this place?" Or we can ponder the moment a human life comes into existence and how a person is formed, gradually, over time. Or we can ask giant questions like "Where does the universe come from?"

Somehow, something very tiny--a fetus, the early universe, or a dumb little ditty--changes over time to become something magnificent.

I don't have the answers, but I love to sense the profundity of the questions as conveyed in art. If I simply say the word "proto," thinking of the potential of something very small and young, I feel a stirring.

If I have managed to convey something of what I mean, I would be interested if "proto" is ever used this way.

Edit: let me be more specific -- of course I know I can use it however I like in my own writing, but I'd like to see if other people have done so. Some made-up examples would be be a poem titled "Proto," or a neologism in a poem like "protofeeling." Or it could be the use of any existing proto- word but in a context that appeals to the emotions. The technical "proto" words don't convey much of the almost-spiritual feeling we can have about potentials--potential life, potential feeling, etc.

  • The prefix "proto" is used quite a bit in such realms as anthropology ("proto-human") and medicine ("proto-onconogene"), and I think most people have a general understanding of what it means in other contexts. Most techies certainly would not hesitate to use the prefix to describe "the one before the first" instance of some design or invention. Whether you choose to use it outside of the technical realm is up to you.
    – Hot Licks
    Jun 7, 2016 at 2:26
  • Proto-Indo-European (PIE) is the hypothetical ancestor of all the Indo-European languages. Linguists have reconstructed many PIE roots. I think this qualifies as art as well as science.
    – ab2
    Jun 7, 2016 at 3:33
  • Is your question "Has proto- ever been used poetically?"? Jun 7, 2016 at 4:37

1 Answer 1


A search of lyrics.com shows three songs, which certainly qualify as art or poetry, named "Proto," which satisfies one of the conditions in your edit.

They are:

  • Proto, by Elevator Drops
  • Proto, by Foreign Telegram
  • Proto, by Ursula Bogner.

None had lyrics listed on the website, but the Elevator Drops song and the Foreign Telegram song are available on Spotify (will require login) and the Ursula Bogner song is available on YouTube.

As for neologisms, there are also the artists Protohype and Protomartyr (more Spotify links).

Poets.org's not-very-powerful search function didn't turn up any matches for proto*, but the Poetry Foundation's did, specifically, it found nine poems.

A few excerpts (emphases mine):

What about the desiccated starfish

like proto-eagles’ talons dug into the bed

of a vanishing sea?

"Collision," Miroslav Holub

I particularly liked this one, since it contrasted proto-'s often technical and as-noted evolutionary meeting with a feeling (like you asked for):

... And yes, at

night, each microbe gurns in the salty sea

of gut and gullet, born again, boldly eats

as you ate it, brews its own queasy tea

of proto-raunch which it will quickly sate,

birthing wanderlusting vigors, as yet

unknown to microscience.

"Yeast," Roddy Lumsen

(It seems to me raunch is meant to evoke a feeling of stomach queasiness, but it could be open to interpretation, as poetry does.)

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