Take the 2-minute tour ×
English Language & Usage Stack Exchange is a question and answer site for linguists, etymologists, and serious English language enthusiasts. It's 100% free, no registration required.

As is well known, para-, in its meaning of "alongside or beyond", is derived from Greek loanwords such as paraphrase and parasite, while its meaning of "against" is derived from the Latin "be prepared" as in parachute and parasol.

My question is: From where is para- derived in words like, for example, parabrake and paraglider? Can parachute itself be the source of the prefix "para-" in these words?

The scope of the question is to investigate whether grammarians recognize only two roots for the para- words, or, instead, they recognize three roots, the last one having evolved independently in modern English.

share|improve this question

This question had a bounty worth +50 reputation from Carlo Alterego that ended 8 hours ago. Grace period ends in 15 hours

Looking for an answer drawing from credible and/or official sources.

- Are you sure you want to start a bounty of 50 reputation on this question? - No, I'm not.

migrated from ell.stackexchange.com Jun 2 '13 at 21:20

This question came from our site for speakers of other languages learning English.

Your standards are slipping, @Carlo! I didn't even know the word "parabrake" until now, but it takes only a couple of seconds to establish that it's another name for brake parachute. And obviously paragliding has the same roots as parachuting. And I know from your earlier question that you're aware of the etymology for that (para- "defense against" + chute "a fall"). –  FumbleFingers Jun 2 '13 at 20:35
'Para' appears in loanwords and later analogues, and has many more meanings than "alongside or beyond", and "against". At reference.com/motif/reference/prefix-para the meanings near, resembling, apart from, and abnormal are added. –  Edwin Ashworth Jun 2 '13 at 22:44
Another use of para is as a shortening of the word paratrooper. It's used informally. Para is singular and paras is plural. –  Tristan Jun 3 '13 at 10:09
Once a word has become familiar enough, it gets frozen and pieces of it can be sliced off and used as roots for other words. Like helico-pter (Greek 'spiral wing'), which got fused and rebroken into heli-copter, as in helipad and cargo copter. So the para- in parachute gets appropriated for other words. –  John Lawler Jul 25 at 19:12

6 Answers 6

up vote 1 down vote accepted

The para- in parachute comes ultimately from Italian (or from Latin, if you want to go back that far). Random House Webster's Unabridged Dictionary provides this definition for the suffix para-:

a combining form meaning "guard against," occurring in loan words from French, or, via French, from Italian: parachute, parasol. [< F < It para, 3d sing pres of parare to prepare against, ward off < L parare to PREPARE]

Spanish makes heavier use of the para- suffix with words like:

  • paraguas to fend off waters (in other words, rain) an umbrella
  • parasol to fend off the sun
  • parabrisas to fend off breezes, i.e. a windshield
share|improve this answer
Not just Spanish—French (and I presume Italian) does too: parapluie (‘stop-rain’, an umbrella), parasol (as in Spanish), and pare-brise (as in Spanish). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet 7 hours ago

Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary (2003) reports six distinct senses of the prefix para- (or par-):

1: beside: alongside of: beyond: aside from <parathyroid> 2a: closely related to <paraldehyde> b: involving substitution at or characterized by two opposite positions in the benzene ring that are separated by two carbon atoms <paradichlorobenzene> 3a: faulty: abnormal <paresthesia> b: associated in a subsidiary or accessory capacity <paramedical> c: closely resembling: almost <paratyphoid>.

In addition, the Eleventh Collegiate lists one combining form of para-:

para- comb form [parachute]: parachute

But it doesn't list another combining form that is evident from the opening portion of the dictionary's entry for Paralympics:

Paralympics n pl [paraplegic + Olympics]

Note: As Avon points out in a comment below, the International Paralympic Committee, which organizes the Paralympic Games, now presents the word paralympic as referring not to paraplegic but to parallel. The Wikipedia article on these games explains the change:

Although the name was originally coined as a portmanteau combining "paraplegic" (due to its origins as games for people with spinal injuries) and "Olympic," the inclusion of other disability groups meant that this was no longer considered very accurate. The present formal explanation for the name is that it derives from the Greek preposition παρά, pará ("beside" or "alongside") and thus refers to a competition held in parallel with the Olympic Games.

I couldn't find any non-proper nouns in the dictionary that use para- as a combining form with the meaning "paraplegic," but a Google search reveals that some parts of Alberta and Yukon Territory in Western Canada use the term pararamp to refer to wheelchair-friendly sidewalk-to-street ramps on city streets. Since these are not alternatives to some sort of normal ramp (normally, sidewalks end in curbs that drop off to the street several inches below), I don't think that any of the six senses of para- that the Eleventh Collegiate identifies apply here. If that's correct, then the para- in pararamp would seem to be short for paraplegic or paralytic.

The same cannot be said for paratransit and paratransport, which refer to services that are ancillary to the standard transit and transport options in the municipalities that offer them. Of course, many people who have difficulty with standard mass-transit options are neither paraplegic nor wheelchair-bound; but I suspect that the coiners of pararamp may have been influenced by their awareness that paratransit and paratransport do offer special services for people in wheelchairs.

In any event, as FumbleFingers says, parabrake and paraglider (like paratrooper) fall into the combining form of para- that signifies 'parachute." A final point: The words parasol, parachute, and paravane (referring to "a torpedo-shaped protective device with serrate teeth in its forward end used underwater by a ship in mined areas to sever the moorings of mines") use para- in the sense of "to ward off or to shield"; in the context of parachute, the Eleventh Collegiate says, chute means "fall."

share|improve this answer
Paralympics is short for Parallel Olympics (beside/alongside of the Olympics) not from Paraplegic Olympics (the entrants aren't generally paraplegic). infoplease.com/spot/summer-olympics-paralympics.html It's a bit shocking that Merriam-Webster should make that mistake. –  Avon Jul 21 at 20:22
@Avon: I suspect that MW was reporting the original derivation—not the current attribution—of the name. According to the Wikipedia article on Paralympic Games, "Although the name was originally coined as a portmanteau combining 'paraplegic' (due to its origins as games for people with spinal injuries) and 'Olympic,' the inclusion of other disability groups meant that this was no longer considered very accurate. The present formal explanation for the name is that it ... refers to a competition held in parallel with the Olympic Games." –  Sven Yargs Jul 21 at 20:38
Ah I see. Thanks Sven. In that case +1 –  Avon Jul 21 at 20:45

A very quick search would show that the roots of "paraglider" and "parabrake" are completely separate from the "para" (alongside) roots which you suspect.

The direct answer to your question is, yes, they derive from "parachute".

See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paragliding#History

Both words are portmanteau words, combining, for instance, parachute and glider.

The development of the parachute, especially after WWII, showed the possibility of parachutes with significant glide ratios, and by 1961 paragliding was established as a term. An early example of the modified parachute was the Para-Commander.

share|improve this answer

Yes. The word parachute is derived from para-² + chute. Whereas parabrake and paraglide is derived from para-³ + brake and glide respectively.

para-²: combining form indicating an object that acts as a protection against something: parachute, parasol.
[Origin: French, from Italian, from parare to shield, ultimately from Latin parāre to prepare]

para-³: combining form extracted from parachute, forming compounds denoting persons or things utilizing parachutes or landed by parachute: paradrop; paradoctor; paraglider; paratrooper.

share|improve this answer

Question 1

Can parachute itself be the source of the prefix "para-" in these words?


Yes, in one of them. It is in the case of parabrake.

parabrake (ˈpærəˌbreɪk Pronunciation for parabrake )


noun another name for brake parachute

Collins Dictionary 1: http://www.collinsdictionary.com/dictionary/english/parabrake

The word is a clear derivation from the longer term.

However this is not directly so for paraglider.

Origin of paraglider para(foil) + glider.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, 5th edition

Paraglider comes from parafoil which, in turn comes from parachute.

Definition of PARAFOIL : a self-inflating fabric device that resembles a parachute, behaves in flight like an airplane wing, is maneuverable, is capable of landing a payload at slow speed, and can be launched from the ground in a high wind like a kite http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/parafoil

Question 2

The scope of the question is to investigate whether grammarians recognize only two roots for the para-words, or, instead, they recognize three roots, the last one evolved independently in modern English.


I think so, yes. For example we often see news items with "-gate" appended to them. Here is a discussion of the phenomenon:

The ‘gate’ suffix

  • In 1972 the United States was transfixed by the revelation that the burglary at the national headquarters of the Democratic Party was connected with Richard Nixon’s Republican government. The burglary took place in the Watergate building, Washington DC, and thus, by metonymy, the scandal itself became known by the name of Watergate. One of the most significant episodes in modern US politics, Watergate has since reshaped the language of scandal and controversy in a format that also extends beyond English-speaking commentaries.*

By Eleanor Maier, OED

You can see that this article was written by an employee of the Oxford English Dictionary - an authoritative source if ever there was one.

Clearly there was nothing about the suffix "gate" that indicated scandal before Watergate. So I think it is safe to say that the etymology of all such scandals is derived from the name Watergate rather than from the word 'gate'.

In the same way it is clear that "para" does not directly mean "be prepared" when it is used in 'paraglider'. The word 'parachute' is the origin via parafoil.

However, when we come to 'parabrake', it could be argued either way. A parabrake may be used in an emergency and hence be a sign of preparedness. However in general parabrakes are used routinely, e.g. to slow down drag racers, re-entering space-craft and so on. They are primarily brakes rather than emergency equipment.


I think it safe to say that 'para' in parabrake derives directly from parachute and not from a Latin or Greek root. However in paraglider the etymology comes via parafoil which is itself a derivation from parachute.

share|improve this answer

The answer to your question is yes if the OED is a good enough authority for you. The original OED recognized two type of prefixes, which it called "Para-1" and "Para-2". The former was from the Greek παρ-, παρα- meaning "beside," which (as you note) gives us "paraphrase"; the latter, from the Latin parare, to defend against, which gives us via French the word "parachute," a defense against a fall.

The last paper supplement to the OED adds a"Para-3" defined as a "Comb[ining] form of Parachute." Examples of its use include "parabrake" (a parachute that opens at the back of an aircraft and that acts as a break) and "paraglider" (a device that lets it operator fly like a glider and descend safely to earth like a parachutist).

Clearly neither of the original definitions will do. A parabrake is not something that stands along side a brake or defends against a brake. It's a type of parachute and its name derives from that device.

share|improve this answer

Your Answer


By posting your answer, you agree to the privacy policy and terms of service.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.