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Etymology - English Words with Latin Prefixes

Formation of English words from Latin prepositions.


A prefix is attached to a word at its beginning. Here are a few English words with prefixes:

  • admit,
  • bicycle,
  • transfer, and
  • circumstance.

There are also suffixes that are attached at the end and, occasionally in English, infixes that are inserted into another word. Prefixes are usually adverbs or prepositions derived from Greek or Latin that can't be used alone in English. The addition of (prepositional and adverbial) prefixes is direct, although often the final letter of the prefix is changed or eliminated.

First, we'll look at Latin prepositions and then at the use of Latin prepositions as prefixes in English. NB: Prepositions in Latin take the Ablative or Accusative case; in English, they take an object.

Some common Latin prepositions with the Ablative

Latin Examples:

  • ab,
  • de,
  • ex, and
  • cum.

These Latin prepositions take as their object a noun in the Ablative -- from the Latin preposition ab [away] plus the past participle [latus] of the Latin verb fero [to carry]. Nouns in the Ablative in Latin often convey the idea of carrying away.

English Examples:

  • To avert one's eyes is to turn them away and
  • an exorbitant price is one way beyond the norm.

Some common Latin prepositions with the Accusative

Latin Examples:

  • trans,
  • ad,
  • ante,
  • per, and
  • post.

Accusative is like our objective case -- the case we see when we have a prepositional phrase involving a pronoun:

"I walked toward him."

'Toward' is the preposition (ad in Latin) and 'him' is the objective case of the pronoun 'he'.

English Example:

  • A Latin prepositional phrase with the Accusative that we should all be familiar with is post meridiem. It may be more familiar as our temporal abbreviation "p.m."

Latin Prepositions as Prefixes in English

These common Latin prepositions are very common in English, as well. But in English they don't have an object, nor do they stand alone in the sentence as separate words. Instead, they are "bound morphemes" that must be attached to a word -- generally, a verb. Sometimes it is a bit hard to recognize the original Latin preposition because it has been changed to make the English word with it attached easier to pronounce. Sometimes the Romans did this as well when they added prepositions and adverbs to their own verbs. Most of the English words below actually come from Latin (or Old French) words with preposition and verb already combined or produced by analogy with similar words. Some are combined in English but not the Latin.

Quick Example:

The English word "attend" comes from the Latin preposition ad- combined with the Latin verb tendo, which is combined in Latin as it is in English, with the /d/ of ad changing to a /t/ to match the initial consonant of the verb. Try pronouncing adtend and attend. Do you see why the /d/ was "assimilated" to the following consonant? Further explanation follows below, in the footnote.

My thanks to William J. Dominik for putting these word forms together so usefully in his "Words and Ideas," 2002: Bolchazy-Carducci Publishers, Inc.

Latin Preposition: AB or A away or away from
Latin Prefix:

  • ab-
  • a-
  • abs-
  • abduct
  • avert*
  • abstruse

Latin Preposition: DE down or away from
Latin Prefix:

  • de-
  • default

Latin Preposition: EX or E out of or from
Latin Prefix:

  • ex-
  • e-
  • ef-
  • exorbitant
  • eliminate
  • effete

Latin Preposition: CUM with
Latin Prefix:

  • com-
  • co-
  • col-
  • con-
  • cor-
  • compound
  • cooperate
  • collect
  • convolution
  • correspond

Latin Preposition: TRANS across or over
Latin Prefix:

  • trans-
  • tra-
  • tran-
  • transmigrate
  • traverse
  • transubstantiate

Latin Preposition: AD to, toward or near
Latin Prefix:

  • ad-
  • a-
  • ac-
  • af-
  • ag-
  • al-
  • an-
  • ap-
  • ar-
  • as-
  • at-
  • advertise
  • aspire
  • accept
  • affect
  • agglutinative
  • alliteration
  • annihilate*
  • appoint
  • arrest
  • assign
  • attenuate

Latin Preposition: ANTE before
Latin Prefix:

  • ante-
  • antediluvian

Latin Preposition: PER through or by
Latin Prefix:

  • per-
  • percent

Latin Preposition: POST after or behind
Latin Prefix:

  • post-
  • postscript

* The Greek prefix a/an means 'not' (it's referred to as an alpha-privative), so many words beginning with a or an have a negative connotation. Annihilate, which may sound negative, comes from ad and nihil. Notice the double n. The prefix for the Greek negation has the /n/ only before a vowel, so the an- can not come from the negation. The reason the /d/ in ad is manifest as an /n/ is because the alveolar voiced stop consonant /d/ is assimilated to the alveolar nasal /n/ for ease of pronunciation.

Related Resources

A Little Etymology
More Latin Words in English
Review Dominik's Words and Ideas

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