Etymology is a huge help when it comes to figuring out the core meaning of a word. This post will focus on how prefixes work, one of the primary morphemes that build English vocabulary words. Prefixes are those parts of words that come before the root, altering or emphasizing a particular word’s meaning. For instance:
venue: simply a place to which people “come” for an event (via the Latin root ven: “come”).
revenue: “revenue,” on the other hand, is the money that “comes back” to a business after selling its products. This is a much different word than “venue,” being significantly changed in meaning by adding the prefix re-, “back, again,” although it still has something to do with “coming,” its core meaning.
Sometimes, however, prefixes are used to put special emphasis on a root, thereby not significantly changing the meaning of the word itself, but rather intensifying or emphasizing the meaning of the root word, and subsequently the word itself. When this happens, a prefix is acting as an intensive. Let’s look at some examples:
pellucid: whereas the word “lucid” means “clear,” the word “pellucid” means “very clear.” The prefix “pel-” is a variant of the base prefix “per-“, which can mean “through” (normal meaning) or “thoroughly” (intensive use).
convince: the Latin root “vinc” means to “win,” so when you “convince” someone of something, you “thoroughly win” that person over to your point of view. Note that the English prefix “con-” means “with” or “together” when not being used as an intensive.
conclude: when you “conclude” something, you “thoroughly close” it to further discussion or thought so that no doubt remains, hence the prefix “con-” is once again acting as an intensive. Note that the Latin root word “clud” means “close, shut, block.”
reticent: since the Latin root word “tic” means “be silent,” here the prefix re- acts as an intensive, for when one is being “reticent” one is being “thoroughly silent” (it wouldn’t make much sense to think of this word as meaning “silent back” or “silent again,” the two primary meanings of the prefix re-).
If it doesn’t make sense for a prefix to change the meaning of a word, it is probably being used as an intensive. Let’s take a look at a couple more examples of this:
desiccate: this word’s definition means “to dry out.” The Latin root “sicc” means “dry,” and the prefix “de-” can mean “off, from, or thoroughly.” It wouldn’t really make sense for the prefix “de-” in this case to change the core meaning of “desiccate” to being “off of or from dryness,” so the “de-” here means “thoroughly.” Hence, when land is “desiccated,” it is “thoroughly dry” or “very dry.”
persuade: The Latin root word “suad” means “to make sweet.” The prefix “per-” can mean “through,” or it can act as an intensive and mean “thoroughly.” Would it make more sense for the word “persuade” to somehow be going “through sweetness,” or would it make more sense for it to mean to “make thoroughly sweet” to someone? Yes, when you are attempting to “persuade” someone to do something, you are making it “thoroughly sweet” for that person so she or he will want to do it.
Here are a couple of podcasts that discuss prefixes that can have intensive force:
The intensive prefixes re- and de-
The intensive prefixes e- and ex-
The key lesson to take away from this is that if the primary meaning of a prefix is not helpful in figuring out the meaning of a word, the prefix may very well be acting as an intensive.