For the benefit of those less well-educated than you and I, allow me to define that word: it denotes a word attached to the FRONT of another, to change its meaning (its evil twin – the suffix – is tacked onto the BACK of a word, for the same purpose).
And perhaps the most commonly-used prefixes are ones that REVERSE the meaning – but this is where it gets STRANGE.
Now more than five years ago, in this very column, I detailed the fun I had had, trying to explain to my non-British wife – who has always been keen to understand my language better (which is mighty white of her, given I have never striven to understand HERS) – why the “ough” in “rough”, “cough”, “bough”, “though” and “through” are pronounced totally differently.
And why “through” is pronounced the same as “threw”.
Of course today, many people do not even manage the correct usage of the words “lose” – as in not find – and “loose” – as in not tight. They FREQUENTLY choose (not chose) the wrong one.
But my Lady is made of stronger stuff. And so when she used the prefix “in-” in front of “fortunate” I corrected her (as she had ASKED me to always do – although in order not to be a bore, I let about three-quarters of her inaccuracies go).
This got us onto prefixes. I recalled “non-“, “un-“, “in-“, “dis-” and “il-” and attempted to explain which should be used with what.
However in doing so, I realised the task was impossible. I mean, if there were just TWO reversing prefixes – one for words beginning with a vowel and the other for words beginning with a consonant – it would be easy.
But no. There is NO order to this. The five reversing prefixes I came up with have no consistency whatsoever. The words they go with all have to be learned SEPARATELY.
And do not get me started on words that ONLY exist with reversing prefixes. For example – when did you last hear someone say they were gruntled? (As opposed to disgruntled). Or that a substance was licit? (As opposed to Illicit). Etc.
The thing is, thanks to the power of America, the English language now predominates. And whilst it may be the language of Shakespeare, its inconsistencies and illogicalities (I bet the SpellChecker rejects THAT one) make it DAMN hard to learn, if you were not BORN in an English-speaking country (or America).
And forget about made-up “universal” languages like Esperanto. They never got ANYWHERE.
I am sure there are people out there who, given half an hour, could write a piece much longer than this 500-worder, explaining the origins and reasons why there are at least five (you may know OTHERS) of these prefixes, when TWO would suffice.
Hell, if each of the five consistently linked to words beginning with a particular letter that would HELP.
But no, I am not concerned with trying to understand the etymological history behind this issue. MY point is that with English becoming the dominant language of our planet, is it not a shame it is so F***ED UP?