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I was trying to find the origin for the word "beneath" to see when it should be used instead of "below" and I found that it originated from be - neothan and was directed to see the definition of "nether":

–adjective

  1. lying or believed to lie beneath the earth's surface; infernal: the nether regions.
  2. lower or under: his nether lip.

I concluded that to be beneath, is to be below.

With this in mind, does that mean that the word underneath implies a greater level of depth than either beneath or below as it would literally mean "under low" instead of simply "being low"?

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Note that "nether regions" nowadays is also used to refer to the buttocks and associated body parts. That being said, I would say that "beneath" and "underneath" are for the most part interchangeable. –  user730 Dec 14 '10 at 13:45
    
People say "far beneath" rather than "far underneath" (obligatory Ngram). I would say that this indicates that "beneath" is used for greater levels of depth. –  Peter Shor Oct 5 '11 at 18:10

1 Answer 1

up vote 7 down vote accepted

No, "underneath" does not imply a greater level of depth than either "beneath" or "below".

underneath

The under- indicates the subject of comparison is directly below the object or right "under its shadow". It also implies a total or partial concealment.

beneath

While the etymology of this word is slightly different (bi/by-neothan/low), it can be used interchangeably with "underneath", as @J. M. rightly pointed out in his comment on the question. However, the prefix be indicates another shade of meaning---"below the level of". Thus, if something or someone is below another, then it is not necessarily directly under but could also be at a lower level.

Examples

  • The White River flows through the plains beneath the majestic slopes of Mount Verde.

    In this example, "beneath" cannot be interchanged with "underneath", as the plains cannot be physically under the mountain!

  • Check that sorry pile of newspapers. I'm sure my watch is underneath.

    While it would not be incorrect to use "beneath" in place of "underneath" in this case, doing so would not be too stylistically pleasing for obvious reasons.

  • I'm sure my watch is underneath that sorry pile of newspapers.

    Here, "beneath" can be substituted for "underneath" without inhibition!

  • Beneath that great city lies an unparalleled tunnel network.

    "Underneath" can be used in place of "beneath" here, although "beneath" flows better, probably because of the word "lies".

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