Sunday, October 5, 2008

#1: In—in, on, not, into

Up to this point I have been focusing primarily upon stems of English vocabulary words, those primary morphemes from Greek and Latin roots that form the core of English words. There are, however, also highly important affixes, such as prefixes and suffixes, that help to form the meaning of English words, and that can be helpful in ascertaining their precise meaning. Today and for the next few posts I will focus on one of these important affixes, the prefix in. To view in full glory the prolific influence of one of the most important of Latin roots that gives the English language a much-utilized prefix, see this Greek and Latin root words page, and check out the importance in general of Greek and Latin roots as a whole.
The Latin root in makes its presence felt in many words, where it disguises itself in multiple forms and contains multiple meanings (for a discussion of prefixes and their importance in the English language, see my introduction to word origin and etymology). Once, however, one pierces the tricky orthographic disguises of this prefix, it reveals itself in all its utility. When "in" means "in or on" it can take the following forms:

il: as in "illusory" (of a "playing on" someone's mind in order to deceive him) and "illustrate" (to "brighten upon" a page, or "illumine (it) within"). Note that "in" will turn to "il" when placed before the primary stem of a word that begins with "l." There are not many English vocabulary words that contain this spelling change.

im: A prolific spelling for "in." Examples include: "imbibe," (drink "in"); immure (wall "in" or incarcerate); implicit (fold "in," that is, an "implicit" idea is one that is tacitly implied but not directly stated, hence it is etymologically "folded in" a given statement, not to be verbally revealed, but understood nevertheless); immanent (dwelling or remaining "in"; an "immanent" deity "dwells within" us); and imbroglio (a "stirring or mixing in," hence leading towards a confused or difficult situation or complex and intricate state of affairs). Can you see why "im" is used instead of "in" in the examples above? Check out for more fascinating word histories and more examples of "im"...what an important trip they are!

in: No spelling changes here, and what a wealth of words. Here are a few: influx (a flowing "in"); inculpate (to place the blame "on" someone); invasive (pertaining to a going "in" somewhere, usually when not wanted or desired); invoke (a calling "on" or "upon" someone, usually a deity or someone you really need help from); and induct (a leading "in," usually in terms of bringing someone "within" the auspices of an organization).

ir: "in" morphs to "ir" when the main stem of the English word begins with an "r," such as in the following two examples: irrigate (a conducting of water "on" a field or pasture) and irradiate (from the Latin root word "shine on").

en/em (thank you French): "In" can also cleverly appear as "en" or "em," again depending upon the spelling of the main root words they are preceding. Two examples of "en" include: "encapsulate" (or etymologically to put "in" a little box, hence "to summarize") and "entice" (to lead "on," or, originally, to set "on" fire). Two examples of "em" include: embrace (etymologically to put one's arms fully "on" someone) and emboss (to place a "knob on" something, such as a piece of paper, a "boss" being something presented in "relief" so it rises from a surface, like a door"knob" from a planar surface of a door; emboss can also mean to hide "in a thicket;" "boss" here coming from the Frankish "boscu," woods, from which we derive "ambuscade" and "ambush"--deeply, woods, after all, comprised of trees, rise in relief from the planar surface of the flat ground, hence in "relief"). By the bye, the word "emboss" can also mean "to foam at the mouth like an enraged or frenetic wild animal." No guesses here, guys, unless it were to imply that spittle flowing from a hungry maw is symbolic of eventual "relief" of hunger.

We are just beginning with this ubiquitous Latin root. The next Greek and Latin root words post will focus on the prefix in when it means "into" and "not," both very important distinctions when it comes to word origins, but simple once unraveled.

Magister Britannus