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Derived from a Latin word meaning "very deadly," it was mis-defined by Samuel Johnson in his dictionary as “mutually destructive” —which is what it has meant ever since. What word is it?

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Answer: internecine

The word derives from the Latin internecinus, very deadly or murderous (from Latin necare, kill). According to the Oxford English Dictionary, Johnson misinterpreted inter to mean "mutual," when in this case the prefix was an intensifier; hence, the term should have been defined as "very destructive" not "mutually destructive."

For more information about the language term intensifier, see the Online Dictionary of language Terminology.


Any chance the last week in Canadian federal politics inspired this question? I think this word nicely describes what transpired between Harper and Dion.

[Mootguy: Perhaps, subconsciously.]
Andrew Wahl, Mississauga

I heard two of my bosses agree that internecine warfare was warfare between cousins. They seemed to have good arguments to me at the time.

[Mootguy: I don't believe that the word has ever meant that in either Latin or English. If anyone knows anything different, please let me know.]
Johnson Wood, FL

I would have made the same mistake [as Johnson].
Peter Stearns, California

My professor of English, forty years ago, used to pronounce this word 'interNIcene', which added another layer of mistaken intensity.
C, an expat Brit

I have to agree, almost with the "cousins" response. I've always seen and heard the word in the context of strife or warfare between members of the same family or clan, or between erstwhile or supposed allies. In this context, the US Civil War would be an example of internecine battle. Of course, war of any kind carries with it, almost by definition, the idea of mutual destruction.
John Friesen, Vancouver

Here I beleive you have come upon a word that might truly be an enigma. Every etymology of "internecine" mentions that the original Latin definition of both "internecinus" and "internecivus" was "FOUGHT to the death, murderous". Since it takes at least two to fight, we immediately have the usual "inter" prefix significance.

Why would the original Latin scribe choose "inter" when there are other prefixes which are used as simple intensifiers? My guess is that he wanted that rapport from the start. Do you know of any other word beginning with "inter" where it does not have the "between" or "among" significance in its etymology? Who can deny that a word originally meaning "mutually destructive" couldn't evolve or branch out and therefore later come to mean "very destructive? It sounds logical to me. On the other hand "mutually destructive" is definitely "very destructive" because it's doubly so; however, all that is "very destructive" isn't always "mutually" so.

It seems to me that Johnson went straight to the Latin words for his defintion; what we've done to it by this time is another "kettle of destruction".
Stephen, MA

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.
Ervin Biderman

I do agree with some of the other responses, that "internecine" strife refers to strife within the family or group, and that this use is the most common.

[Mootguy: I just looked it up in the COD and they define it as "mutually desctructive." Sounds like the meaning is evolving.]
Jack Ognistoff

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