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

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 evolved independently in modern English.

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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

1 Answer 1

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

1: beside: alongside of: beyond: aside from <*para*thyroid> 2a: closely related to <*par*aldehyde> b: involving substitution at or characterized by two opposite positions in the benzene ring that are separated by two carbon atoms <*para*dichlorobenzene> 3a: faulty: abnormal <*par*esthesia> b: associated in a subsidiary or accessory capacity <*para*medical> c: closely resembling: almost <*para*typhoid>.

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 [*para*plegic + O*lympics*]

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."

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