Friday, May 27, 2011

Language of Confusion: Fer Crying Out Loud

I chose ‘fer’ as this week’s word because it’s one of the ones that’s meaningless without its prefix. You can prefer something, defer, refer, transfer or infer it. Or offer, confer, differ, suffer…But you can’t fer it.

It doesn’t take much to amuse me.

-Fer comes from the classical Latin ferre, which means to carry. The earliest –fer word to show up was suffer in the early thirteenth century. The su- comes from the prefix sub-, Latin for under or beneath. Combined with ferre, sufferre meant to undergo or endure (undertake a burden) rather than the to be in pain definition we have today.

The next -fer words showed up more than a century later. Prefer originally meant to promote or advance, and that morphed into favor. It’s classical Latin equivalent is praeferre, “place or set before.” It is the combination of prae (pre-), before and carry, so it’s “to carry before.” When you prefer something, you carry it before the others.

In Latin, refer means “to carry back.” Re- “again, back to” and ferre, carry. When you refer to something, you carry back your attention to it. Differ comes from dis- (apart) and ferre, making it “carry or set apart.”  A difference is what sets things apart! This is also where defer comes from. The two words split apart in the sixteenth century, when the latter took on a temporal sense (as in delay). Defer as in “to yield” is, again, from the same de + ferre. It was the Middle French language that started using it as such and we in English used it in the “pass on or yield to another” sense.

A little later, we have transfer showing up—trans-, as in beyond, made “to carry beyond,” which is a good definition for moving something. Infer is another fairly simple origin: in- means in or inside, so it is “to carry inward.” A good, but figurative, way of saying “thought something up.”

If you remember what the con- prefix means, you’ll know that confer means “to carry together,” which makes sense when you think conferring means consulting together (or, dare I say, conferencing). Finally, offer comes from the Latin offere, to present or bring before. The o in offer comes from ob-, which means toward or against. Ob- + -fer means to carry towards and when you get an offer (wink, wink), you’re carried towards an agreement. 

Are you as fascinated with this as I am? No? No one read to the end? Oh, well… 

Thanks goes to the Online Etymology Dictionary, which has more information on words than I could learn in a lifetime.


  1. I read to the end. (Although, I will admit to skimming...hangs head in shame.)

  2. Suffer, of course, what we all do when it comes to election time. And tax time. And dinner with the in law time.

  3. I read all the way to the end! I totally had a question for you when I saw the title of your post, but it turns out you didn't blog about what I though you were going to blog about. So now, my question is... um... Is your weather getting any better?

  4. Su: Sunny and cloudy and then sunny again :)

  5. I'm a word nerd, so I read the whole thing. :)


Please validate me.