There are five Latin adjectives that hold the key to numerous word roots in English. If you learn them, your English vocabulary will significantly expand, and your ability to immediately understand new words will blossom out.
Those Latin adjectives owe their impressive proliferation to a linguistic phenomenon existing in almost all languages. It is quite abundant in Indo–European language family and is called suppletion.
What is Suppletion?
That is a term used mainly in linguistics and study of etymology. It denotes the use of one word as a form of another without those two having necessarily the same word root. It is suggested that suppletion occurs when a missing form of an inflected (with the same root but different suffixes) word is taken from another word that might be semantically close but of no common root with the “filled” word.
This might sound obscure, but chances are, you have already faced suppletion in your own language, except that you have not known it. For example, do you remember the irregular verbs in English? That it is! The past tense of the verb to go (went) is a perfect example of the process we talk about.
It is good to know that suppletion is not restricted only to verbs. Adjectives are often an object of that, especially in their comparative or superlative forms.
The five most common irregular Latin adjectives that have given countless number of words in English
In Latin, there were five adjectives with irregular comparative and superlative forms that have produced an impressive amount of words in English. As a matter of fact, they were a bit more, but those five were the real “word making champions.”
In English, they are usually translated as: good, bad, large, small, and much/many.
As you know, almost all of them have irregular forms in English:
In Latin, they look as follow:
All those Latin adjectives could be found in the modern Romance languages; Italian, French, Spanish, Portuguese, and Romanian being one of the most popular of that group. The Latin adjective multus (in neuter gender) has given the French plus and the Italian piu. The comparative form of the Latin adjective bonus – melior, melius – has developed into the Italian maggiore, migliore, the French meilleur, and the Spanish mayor.
Surprisingly (or not), these irregular Latin adjectives have made their way to the English language too. I bet you could easily recognize familiar word roots in the chart above, couldn’t you? Well, let’s see how prolific those Latin roots actually were.
English words deriving from irregular Latin adjectives
Latin: Bonus – Melior, Melius – Optimus / English: Good – Better – Best
The comparative form of that Latin adjective is well visible in the English verb to ameliorate. It has kept the literal sense of the comparative (in English better) and until today it denotes an ability to make thing better, to improve. That verb exists in the exact same form in French (améliorer) meaning the same thing.
The positive form bonus has also remained unchanged in English, although used not as a noun but as an adjective. With the time, the initial meaning of something good has acquired an additional sense of a thing that appears more than was expected. With that notion bonus was adopted in the business English language denoting an extra amount of money given to an employee as a reward for his efforts at work.
The same idea of the liberality of giving is integrated into the word bounty coming from the same Latin comparative form as well. In English, that noun could represent a generous yield of crops, but it also could represent a governmental premium or a subsidy given with purposes varying from encouraging entry in the army, to granting an industry, to providing an extra payment for killing noxious animals or for capturing criminals. That vast gamut of notions only adds to one of the main meanings of bounty – generosity, things given in a large amount, as in the expression “bounty of nature.”
The superlative form of bonus (optimus – the best) was used by the German philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz in building his theory that we live in the best of all possible worlds. He called that world optimum – the greatest world – and with the coinage of that term he gave birth of a philosophical doctrine known today as optimism. Its main characteristic are expressed in the anticipation of the best possible outcome in the future where all goods things will happen. The notion of the best possible result could be detected in the word optimum used independently or to describe conditions or products.
The Latin adjective malus seems to be quite prolific acting as a word root for many English words starting with mal. Due to their common prefix, they all share the idea of expressing a negative notion, something bad. Malaise, for instance, consists of mal (bad) + aise (ease) where the second part of the word comes from the Old French aise – physical comfort, well-being. Malaise is a state of a person who has a general feeling of not being healthy or who is literally in a “bad condition.” As the word has this inner implication of evil, it also could be used to denote a mental or moral ill-being as well as a vague feeling that something is wrong, especially with society.
Malaria is a disease that in the past was thought to be caused by air infected with a noxious substance. It was named so around the 17th century, and its first use is related to the name of the Italian doctor Francisco Torti. The first part of the word comes from the Latin adjective malus (bad) and the second from the Italian noun aria (air). The physicians of that period did not know that malaria passed from one person to another through mosquito bites and thought that the real infector was the “bad air” around the marshy regions.
As you already are aware of the meaning of the prefix of this word, the key to its full meaning could be found in its second part. It comes from the Latin verb facio, facere - to do, to act and, in fact, is a composite of many English words containing the Latin root fac. Malefactor describes a person who does bad or illegal things. The word is so heavily loaded with the notion of evil behavior that today it is also used for denoting someone who is found guilty of a crime or offence. Now you know why Angelina Jolie’s character Maleficent of the film of the same name was called like that, right?
Here, again, the second part of the word could reveal its sense. The Latin verb dico, dicere means to speak, to talk. Hence, maledicere, a verb that existed yet in Latin, stands for speaking badly or evil of someone. Over the time, the notion of malediction narrowed and put emphasize on the badness of the pronounced words. Today that noun is used to present slanders, insults, and curses.
The human malice is the usual culprit for the acts described by the two previous words. The English word comes from the Old French malice that in its turn comes from the Latin malitia - badness, ill will, spite. Although the modern meaning seems almost the same as the ancient one, there is a small difference of the English version related to the activity’s degree of the performer. In malice, there is a bit more tension than in militia as with that noun we usually describe the wish to hurt someone intentionally, the desire to cause pain and distress.
The comparative form of the adjective bonus (peior, peius) has given the English adjective pejorative. The general meaning of it is a word or a phrase that have negative connotations. That prime sense derives from the literal notion of the Latin adjective peior (worse) as well as from the verb it is related to – peiorare (to make worse). As an adjective, pejorative denotes disapproval or suggests that something is not of importance. The idea of expressing criticism with this adjective has enlarged its meaning and today it may even describe the act of insulting someone.
A good example for that term is the word barbarian. With that word ancient Greeks denoted all those people who didn’t speak Greek and talked non-understandable language. It started to gain pejorative sense yet in Antiquity when with that word were named all those who lived in a way different from the known ethical and political Greek and Roman norms, implying that this meant they were inferior to the ancient Greeks and Romans.
The superlative form of the Latin adjective malus (pessimus - the worst) was first used to describe the French writer Voltaire as a pessimist - a person with an inclination to consider only the worst aspects of a subject. He was labeled as such because of his novel “Candide: or, All for the Best,” published in the mid-18th century, where he has satirized the Leibniz’s view about living in the best of the possible worlds. In the philosophical circles, a new movement called philosophical pessimism started to form. Its main point was to find ways of facing up the distressful reality we live in and to eliminate any irrational optimistic hopes and expectations as they may turn harmful for the human being.
The term pessimism found its way out of philosophy and started to be used for describing a human inclination to emphasize adverse aspects of life. People are called pessimists when they believe what they hope for will not happen or expect the worst possible outcome.