Saturday, January 12, 2013


This wasn't at all a word I was planning to explore--it just came up. I was writing up a quick post on Dana King's Wild Bill, a contemporary Chicago based mafia crime novel, when I found myself using the word 'internecine'. Decided to do a quick check to make sure an internecine war did not mean 'one between brothers', because that is not what I was trying to say.

And in fact it doesn't mean that. "Internecine" has come to mean a struggle within a group, organization or country. It can also mean mutually destructive, fatal or ruinous to both sides. It can also simply mean characterized by bloodshed or carnage. All of these would be quite appropriate to Wild Bill. But quite uncharacteristically, The Free Dictionary throws in a bit of word history. I'll quote it here in its entirety:

Word History: When is a mistake not a mistake? In language at least, the answer to this question is "When everyone adopts it," and on rare occasions, "When it's in the dictionary." The word internecine presents a case in point. Today, it usually has the meaning "relating to internal struggle," but in its first recorded use in English, in 1663, it meant "fought to the death." How it got from one sense to another is an interesting story in the history of English. The Latin source of the word, spelled both internecnus and internecvus, meant "fought to the death, murderous." It is a derivative of the verb necre, "to kill." The prefix inter- was here used not in the usual sense "between, mutual" but rather as an intensifier meaning "all the way, to the death." This piece of knowledge was unknown to Samuel Johnson, however, when he was working on his great dictionary in the 18th century. He included internecine in his dictionary but misunderstood the prefix and defined the word as "endeavoring mutual destruction." Johnson was not taken to task for this error. On the contrary, his dictionary was so popular and considered so authoritative that this error became widely adopted as correct usage. The error was further compounded when internecine acquired the sense "relating to internal struggle." This story thus illustrates how dictionaries are often viewed as providing norms and how the ultimate arbiter in language, even for the dictionary itself, is popular usage.

All right--fair enough. But the question does cross my mind--where do we have another example of this alternate meaning of  inter? Where else is it used as an intensifier? I'm skeptical, but willing to be persuaded. If you've got a good example, please let me know.

Meanwhile, I'm sticking with Johnson.



  1. I confess that whenever I see the word "internecine" it makes think we're all in the pool together. (It's a chlorinated pool.) I wonder if that's because the public pool when I was growing up seemed a wild and murderous place, full of dunking and violent splashing.

  2. Kathleen, I think you were hearing the "natant" swimming around the word, while I was hearing the "natal" birth sort of sound. Neither of us are probably predisposed to hearing the "necre" to kill. Although your public pool sounds like it might have given you a taste of it.

  3. Very interesting history bit there, Seana. It's a great word, and I love to see the foibles in language development like this. Thanks!

  4. Glad you liked it, Nate. Still looking for people who can think of a word that uses inter- as an intensifier, though.

  5. I was just thinking about the role of printers on spelling, which is kind of in line with dictionary makers.

    1. Very much so, Sheiler. Although I suppose what is changed in error digitally is now much more easy to change back again.

      Somehow, though, I don't think there are going to be many fewer errors...

  6. oh sorry - I meant the role of the printers with actual printing presses from ye olde tymes. I saw on some show that spelling was sometimes dependent on the guy who put the bits of metal or wood into the thingamabob that got ink rubbed all over it before getting applied to paper. I forget now what it was. But the thing that stayed was how arbitrary it was.

    Thus concludes this week's info-torial on some ancient things.

  7. Sheiler, info-torials are pretty much what this blog is all about. Yes, I see what you're saying. I don't know exactly where James Joyce fits into this timeline, but I know that there is a big to do about a newly restored edition of Finnegans Wake, who, as a guest blogger wrote up over on my Finnegans Wake blog, poses all sorts of problems for readers of the hallowed text.

  8. Dear Seana,
    in Spanish the relevant expression is "disputas intestinas", where intestinas is related to intestines, say bowels. So it's like the bowels in your waist are quarreling among themselves. The "intes" is similar to "inter", "between" meaning

  9. Nice additional information, Anonymous. This goes along with what the word means in present day English more than the original intensified fight to the death idea, unless of course one's bowels were going through a really really hard time.