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Beneath and underneath both indicate similar concepts, and since under- is a free morpheme in many contexts, is neath a bound morpheme or does it derive from a standalone root?

I bring this up since many instances of underneath and beneath can be replaced with under.

"Where were your keys?"

"They were under the couch." / "They were underneath the couch." / "They were beneath the couch".

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Regardless of any actual standalone root, neath sounds very Shakespearean. "She-ith sat-ith neath thee throne-ith." But I'm no Shakespearean scholar. –  Nick Anderegg Aug 7 '12 at 20:08
    
It's archaic. See my answer. –  American Luke Aug 7 '12 at 20:10
    
@NickAnderegg. What on Earth are those -ith suffixes supposed to mean? I can't make any sense of them at all. –  TRiG Aug 7 '12 at 22:22
    
It was mimicking thing -th in Middle English. It's like-o how-o you speak-o el Spanish-o by adding -o to everything. I'm no Shakespearean scholar. (To sum it up, it's a cheesy joke.) –  Nick Anderegg Aug 7 '12 at 22:38
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Please consult a dictionary before asking meaning questions. If the meaning as explained in a dictionary is insufficient please expand on that in your question. –  Matt Эллен Aug 8 '12 at 8:32
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4 Answers

up vote 6 down vote accepted

Neath or 'neath does have a standalone meaning, but as you will see here, it simply means beneath. It appears in poetry usually, I suspect, when beneath or underneath would add too many syllables to the line.

You can see its use in Google Ngrams here compared to beneath (most common) and underneath. It is quite rare, and declining:

enter image description here

Neath comes beneath underneath, which come underneath beneath!

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Be careful; that probably includes the Welsh town, 'Neath'. And that pun is beneath your standards. ;) –  rsegal Aug 7 '12 at 20:12
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@rsegal isn't Ngrams case-sensitive? I believe it is. –  JAM Aug 7 '12 at 20:13
    
Google says, "the Ngram Viewer is case-sensitive". –  Gareth Rees Aug 7 '12 at 20:26
    
Yes: Google N-Grams is case-sensitive, but Google Books searches are case-insensitive. Both do odd, and unequal, things with punctuation. –  tchrist Aug 7 '12 at 20:27
    
Ngrams is kinda weird about punctuation and case. (That graph would make it seem like Ngrams pays attention to case, but, if you look through the actual results, it's not quite so straightforward as you might think just by looking at the graph alone). –  J.R. Aug 7 '12 at 20:34
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In Old English, you could create a verb from another word by prefixing it with be-, as in become, besiege, bedaub, befriend.

beneothan meant "make far-down", while the related neothera meant "more far down".

Their shared root, neothan, that had it survived we could expect to have become neath and to mean "far-down", dropped out of the language, and meanwhile beneath became the preposition it now is, while nether became close to what that shared root once meant.

Meanwhile underneothan (under the low-down thing) became underneath.

'neath as a contraction comes from beneath, rather than beneath coming from neath as you may expect, though they all share a common Old English root.

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I don't think the be- prefix with neath has much connection with besiege, besmirch, befriend, etc. It's more related to by, in that it identifies location, rather than action/transformation. –  FumbleFingers Aug 7 '12 at 21:11
    
@FumbleFingers befriend etc. also come from be- that is from by-. –  Jon Hanna Aug 7 '12 at 21:17
    
Etymologically speaking I've no reason to disagree with that. I'm just saying that the current significance of the prefix as used in behind, below, beneath, beyond, etc. isn't the same as the current significance of that same prefix in words like besiege, besmirch, befriend. –  FumbleFingers Aug 7 '12 at 21:30
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@FumbleFingers The question is tagged with "etymology", so that's what I addressed. Now, the two meanings of be- are more distinct, as you say. –  Jon Hanna Aug 7 '12 at 21:34
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@FumbleFingers I find it sort of fun how there was a word that had be- prefixed to it to make beneath, and then it ended up being split off again. The best example of that is when "Wicca" was taken from OE, almost certainly quite deliberately, and then modern English adjective rules produced "Wiccan" which happened to be the same spelling (different pronouciation) as the OE plural. I like these little coincidences. –  Jon Hanna Aug 7 '12 at 23:23
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Yes. It is an aphetic variant of the preposition beneath It was first used in 1787. As in:

  • He then placed jack stands under neath the rear suspension.
  • Neath his calm surface, there was seething anger

It is now considered archaic and/or poetic. It is often spelled 'neath. It is frequently preceded by the word under.

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I thought the 'neath form was a poetic form of beneath. Just the same word with the prefix cut off. Like how never do well turns in to n'er do well. –  Nick Anderegg Aug 7 '12 at 20:12
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It seems that 'neath' is a development of 'nether', and has similar (though archaic) meaning.

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