Judah Johansen of lorixia.blogspot.com had pointed out on my first Word Nerd post that there seemed to be a connection between the following words:


She said they have in common a sense of being taken over or transformed. I have to agree with her, after running down to my crawl space for my Latin/English dictionary (See: More proof I am a word nerd! But actually, we call it a crawlspace out of fun. Really we work out down there, and store our four bookshelves down there).

The prefix in- comes from Latin, and The New College Latin and English Dictionary says it "combines usually with verbs, in the local or figurative sense…or with intensive force." It changes to im-, il-, ir-,  and sometimes en- and em-, depending on the word it’s being attached to, by the way.

My Webster’s New World Dictionary says in- means "in, into, within, on, toward: also used as an intensifier in some words of Latin origin." It’s a little easier to understand what the Latin dictionary was saying, now, right? You’re not just drinking something when you imbibe. You’re drinking it in. (bibere in Latin = to drink) The drink or idea that you are imbibing is being worked on by your body or your mind, and it is changing you.

"Bed" as a verb has to do with putting something into the ground. (Like a bed of flowers) Latin speakers had a different word if they just wanted to bury something, so I think this is a case where the in- is intensifying the idea of putting the object into the ground, or wherever you’re burying it. It’s not just buried. It’s really buried. Think of an embedded microchip, or a reporter who is embedded with the troops in a war zone. The reporter could just book a flight for the war, but he’s much safer if he’s buried in among a bunch of soldiers, right?

"Imbecile" was a Word Nerd fail. I could find nothing as a root word except the Latin imbecillus, meaning feeble, helpless; not even the prefix in-/im- was mentioned. I looked in the Latin dictionary to see if maybe –becillus meant something along the lines of weakness, so that im- was being an intensifier. But nothing. I paged through the bec- section of my Webster’s dictionary, but nothing again: no words along the lines of weakness. Ah well. Sometimes a word just means what it means.

"Imitate" was a little different, though. Again, I could find nothing as a root word except imitatus, Latin for "to imitate." (not even the in-/im prefix) However, I just couldn’t let go of the word "iterate," meaning "to repeat."  My two dictionaries didn’t prove it, but you won’t convince my Word Nerd brain that the in-/im- prefix is not acting as an intensifier in front of the Latin iteratus. When you imitate something, you’re not just repeating it, you’re doing the exact same thing!

Now, the in-/im- prefix in all its forms can also mean "no, not, without, non-" as in: insignificant, inactive. [Speaking of which, "injure" comes from Latin in-, meaning "not", and juris, meaning right, justice. Puts a different spin on a boo-boo, doesn’t it?]

Don’t ask me to explain that! We have enough troubles in the English language without trying to sort out issues with the Latin language!