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If:

  • Apolitical means "not political"

and

  • Amuse means...well, it should mean, "not thinking"

then why does await or awaiting not mean "not waiting?"

I read this earlier question (Is there a real difference between wait and await?) but this seems interested in the meaning.

One co-worker passed it off as "another example of why English makes no sense."

I'm hoping for a better explanation or at least some literary historic context.

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5  
Only the prefix "a-" that comes from Greek means "not". Apolitical comes from a Greek root, so that's fine. Amuse does not. There are plenty of other "a-" prefixes, some forming adjectives (awake from wake), some indicating location (above, abaft, aloft, atop), some reflecting old participial prefixes (a-growing, agone, a-laying, a-going (to)), and many more. The idea that because something means X in one context, anything that resembles it has to mean X in any context is pretty naive, frankly. –  John Lawler Feb 17 at 18:56
    
@JohnLawler you should have posted your comment as an answer! –  SammyB Feb 17 at 19:01

4 Answers 4

up vote 14 down vote accepted

English is a hodgepodge of various linguistic origins.

In this case await means "at wait." It is similar to "a sea" meaning at sea. It is derived from Middle English (and Old English). See this

A- as a prefix in other cases means not. You will note that this usage is frequently pronounced using the long-A sound. This usage is derived from Greek. It is only used with words starting with a consonant. If the word starts with a vowel, an- is used (e.g anionic). See here for reference

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The pronunciation bit only works sometimes. ‘Apathetic’ and ‘aphasia’, for example, both have the short a. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 18 at 0:32
    
@JanusBahsJacquet Aphasia gets pronounced both ways. –  David M Feb 18 at 0:37
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Not according to any of the common dictionaries (OED, MW, AHD, Longman) is doesn't. Never heard anyone say it as ‘ay-fay-zi-uh’. Same goes for ‘atom’, ‘agnostic’, ‘atrophy’, ‘abyss’, etc. –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 18 at 0:43
    
@JanusBahsJacquet I'm a physician, and it's fairly common (perhaps incorrect) usage. –  David M Feb 18 at 0:44
1  
@JanusBahsJacquet Regardless, I have edited to reflect that it represents a frequent usage rather than a hard rule. Although, you'll note that for many of the examples you've quoted the non-negated stem is not used in English. You don't hear people talking about the byss, etc. Also, atrophy short-a, atrophic long-a. –  David M Feb 18 at 0:49

All general rules are false.  Not all words beginning with “a-” are of the form “not (something)”; otherwise an “atom” would be Dick, Harry, or anybody other than Tom.  Similarly, “pre-” means “before (something)”, but a “preference” is not an earlier “ference”.

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1  
Hmm… your general point I agree with, but your examples are perhaps not the best since etymologically, an atom is exactly a ‘not-tom’ (something not cut or split up), and a preference is exactly a ‘before-ference’ (something carried before/in front/first). –  Janus Bahs Jacquet Feb 18 at 0:38
3  
Your first sentence is missing the trailing words "... including this one." –  Dilip Sarwate Feb 18 at 0:52
    
It was implied. –  Scott Feb 18 at 1:00
1  
But the "a-" in "atom" does mean "not", and a "preference" is exactly an earlier ference. –  OrangeDog Feb 18 at 13:16

The prefix a- has not one source but several different sources. Webster lists six different prefixes of the kind a-.

prefix 1 - shortening of in/on/at

prefix 2 - as in arise. Webster's explanation of this a- is a bit vague and dubious. My idea: arise might be connected with Latin oriri meaning to rise/arise

prefix 3 - as athirst/akin/anew - Webster: from/of

prefix 4 - as achromatic - Webster: without/not - No mention of the Greek prefix.

prefix 5 - related with Latin ab- meaning coming/moving from a point.

prefix 6 - related with Latin ad- meaning moving to a point and similiar ideas.

Source: Webster's Comprehensive Dictionary of the English Language.

I'm not sure whether Webster has all sources. He doesn't show the relation between English await and German er-warten or English awake and German erwecken/erwachen. There are a lot more of these connections.

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Because the a- prefix came into English from at least two different sources. In ancient Greek, the privative a was used to indicate the negation or absence of the word to which it was attached. It is often used with words with Greek origins, and is treated as "productive," meaning that people still use it to coin new words that negate old ones.

Meanwhile, a- was also used in Middle English as sort of a mild intensifier and flexible preposition, the rules for which are not entirely clear to me. That use of a- is generally confined to words that come from Old or Middle English (await, abed, etc.), is no longer productive, and often feels vaguely archaic.

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