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English vocabulary is not a stable, finite collection of words. New words and expressions are continuously coming into use, while older ones drop out of use. Additionally, old words often take on new meanings (e.g. mouse, virus, window in computing), and older meanings can simply die out (e.g. the original meaning of computer was a person whose job was to make calculations or do accounts). Words are very rarely invented entirely from scratch. (One example of a completely made-up word is blurb). This article will:
Many words are formed by adding affixes (prefixes and suffixes) to existing words. If you know the meanings of the original word and the affix, you can often guess the meaning of the new word. Prefixes are added to the beginning of a word, and suffixes to the end.
The following affixes appear in the Macmillan English Dictionary as headwords. The words that they help to create may only be used a few times in a particular context, or may be used often enough to become an established part of English vocabulary, in which case they appear in the dictionary.
The following prefixes are used in words connected with computers, technology, and the environment:
The following suffixes are used in words that refer to people who really want or like a particular thing:
The following affixes produce negative or opposite meanings:
The following prefixes are used in words that suggest that something is partly true, or is not what it appears to be:
The following affixes mean ‘having a lot of something’, ‘to a large degree’, or ‘always’:
The following suffixes mean that something is done in
a certain way, or is like a certain thing:
The suffix –ly is, of course, the most common way of forming an adverb from an adjective: e.g. slowly, confidently, angrily.
Adjectives are often formed by combining a word with a past participle, or with a noun + -ed. The following suffixes are used in adjectives that describe someone’s clothes, appearance, or personality:
Backformation is what happens when an affix is removed to form a shorter and apparently more basic word which, however, did not previously exist. In most cases, back-formation involves creating new verbs from existing nouns:
Examples: editor > edit (the new verb, ‘to edit’, is formed from the noun ‘editor’ by removing the –or suffix), babysitter > babysit, enthusiasm > enthuse. The word editor, for example, is some 150 years older than edit.top
Compounds are formed by combining two, or sometimes three or more, existing words. There is often a clear connection between the meaning of a compound and the meanings of the original words, so that examining the construction of a compound will often help you to understand its meaning. Some compounds are written as single words (basketball, mailbox); some as a series of separate words (big business, point of view); and some with hyphens (fifty-fifty, laid-back).
Many compounds have obvious meanings: a computer game is a game played on a computer. Others have less obvious meanings: heavy metal is a type of rock music, and a soap opera is a TV series about the lives of a fictional group of characters.
The process of combining verbs with particles (words like up, down, and out) produces innumerable new verbs, of two basic types:
Many verbs formed in these ways also have corresponding nouns and adjectives, such as:
Often, the meanings of these composite forms are easy to guess. In some cases, the basic meaning of the original verb is extended in various ways:
I’ve been running (a)round all day (=I’ve been busy doing lots of different things).
The play was a runaway success (=a much bigger, more immediate success than was expected).
I’ll just run down the list (=quickly read everything on the list) and see if we’ve forgotten anything.
Time is running out (=there isn’t much time left).
In other cases, the particle has a meaning that appears in many composite verbs of this type, so that we gradually learn its meaning. For example, some of the meanings of out are connected with:
The particles out, up, and down are particularly common in words that have appeared recently.
upload (=send documents or programs from a computer to a larger system using the Internet).
dumb down (=make something simpler or easier to understand, in such a way that reduces its quality).
There are also numerous combinations of particles + verb/noun/adjective that are of Greco-Latin origin. If you learn the meanings of some of the common elements they are composed of, it will often help you to understand the meanings of the composite words.
Example: the common element cur or cour comes from
the Latin verb currere (meaning ‘to run’) and it appears
in words such as:
The same element appears in numerous other English words, such as corridor, courier, course, currency, current, curriculum, cursor and others.If you know that con means together and fluence/ fluent means flow, it will help you to remember that the confluence of two rivers is the place where they flow into one another, and that confluence can also be used to mean a situation in which two or more things come together.
If you know that re means back and tract means pull, it will help you to remember that when a cat retracts its claws, it pulls them back towards itself, or that when someone retracts something they previously said or wrote, they ‘take it back’ and say that it is not true after all.
You will still come across words whose meaning is not easy to guess just from looking at their components. You will also hear and read vocabulary items that are not listed in dictionaries because they are only invented to fit a particular situation. But if you are familiar with the processes of word building described above, and with the commonest meanings of the wordbuilding elements used in English, it will help you to understand a large number of unfamiliar words, and to realize that English vocabulary is more systematic than it sometimes appears.
Next in the series
Next in the Language Awareness series: Lexical Priming