As a non-native English speaker, I always wondered why, for example, you say moon, but then you say lunar (same goes for side and lateral, hand and manual and so forth): in some cases, the noun is not the base of the adjective, which derives from the Latin root instead.

What is the reason for this phenomenon?

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    Notice that hardly anyone every forms the adjective form of 'Venus' correctly. Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 6:35
  • @Brian Hooper -- "Venusian"? "Venereal"? "Aphrodisious"? I've seen "Jovian" for the moons of Jupiter (though never "Jovial"). If Mercury had a moon, would it be Hermetic? Poe talks about "the night's Plutonian shore", should he have said "Hadian"? "Haderific"? Commented May 31, 2011 at 1:13
  • @Malvolio, Venereal is, I am told, correct. Commented May 31, 2011 at 1:55

6 Answers 6


Let's not forget that Latin was the language of science and philosophy and nearly all higher learning for hundreds of years. For example, Copernicus wrote his seminal treatise about the heliocentric theory, De revolutionibus orbium coelestium, in Latin. It's not surprising that many of the technical names for natural phenomena and educated words in general would be derived from Latin.

We see remnants of this today in medicine: the parts of the body are named from the Latin. Your orthopedist will tell you you've torn your medial collateral ligament in your knee.


The sort of vocabulary that you would expect the simple folk of the Dark Ages to be using are mostly still of Germanic origin; they are the building blocks of the language, the basics of verb and noun forms, and words for basic abstract concepts.

In later years, the Catholic Church's supremacy meant that the language of inquiry, knowledge, and spirituality was Latin. For many centuries, scientists would publish all their work in Latin. It is no surprise that Latin has filled the gaps in English and provided adjectives such as lunar where English had none.

This is compounded by the imposition of Norman French in the Middle Ages. Since the language of government changed from English, many of our words for government and justice derive from Latin via Norman French. Our words for meats also come from Norman French, e.g. beef, veal, venison, mutton in place of English cow, calf, deer, sheep.

Later still, British scholars would turn to Latin and Greek to coin new words to describe new technologies and modern concepts, as we still do today.

There's an interesting discussion of the influence of Latin on English on wikipedia here: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Latin_influence_in_English

  • Very interesting answer. Nevertheless, it doesn't fully satisfy me: the concept of 'related to the moon' certainly wasn't unknown to the peasants of the Middle Ages. So, either there wasn't an adjective to describe that concept, or there was one that doesn't come from Latin. Or it was lunar, but then the whole explaination of Latin being used for "high" culture seems a bit unsatisfactory :)
    – asymmetric
    Commented Jan 29, 2011 at 22:27
  • It's not necessarily for 'high' culture. Even today less educated speakers will use a smaller, simpler vocabulary. They wouldn't use lateral (because it's not in their personal lexicon) and would improvise a periphrasis. There's no reason to think that mediaeval speakers wouldn't have been the same, maybe referring to the moon's -- rather than lunar --.
    – gpr
    Commented Jan 29, 2011 at 22:43

The English language is a hotchpotch of many languages, a melting pot from most European language roots, with a good deal of other elements thrown in for added spice.

As a result, we often have a vast array of words to choose from for any given topic of conversation. The more elemental and eternal the concept, the longer we will have talked about it and thus the further back through our history words will have been borrowed in order to discuss the concepts.

Generally, you will find that the simple forms of words are likely to hark back to older influences; basic words are often from Old English, or Saxon influence. Whilst more technical terms may not have been so common in the vernacular speech, so may retain scientific form, coming from Latin or Greek.

The essential rule to remember is that English etymology is a many splendored thing; variety is the spice of life, after all.

  • Hotchpotch? I think you mean hodge-podge. :)
    – Noldorin
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 1:09
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    @Noldorin: thefreedictionary.com/hotchpotch -- hotchpotch is older, hodge-podge is a more recent alternate.
    – Orbling
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 1:10
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    @Jimi: Hah, yeah. I thought it had a different meaning at first, but evidently just a variant!
    – Noldorin
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 2:32
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    @Orbling: Just curious, do you actually say hotchpotch as well, or do you only spell it that way?!
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 2:35
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    @Jimi Oke: I say it that way too I'm afraid, my grandparents always did and I think it stuck. I could be misremembering, but I think most people I know use that form, rather than hodge-podge.
    – Orbling
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 16:19

Some [simplistic] reasons:

  • The Latin-based adjective is more elegant for contextual reasons, e.g. sideways vs. lateral
  • It is impossible to form an adjective otherwise, e.g. sun :: solar
  • And better a word than a phrase, e.g. lunar vs. of the moon
  • The non-Latin adjective may mean something else entirely, e.g. handy vs. manual
  • how can it be impossible? there must have been a way to express the concept of 'related to the sun' without resorting to Latin in the language(s) English comes from, right?
    – asymmetric
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 9:53
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    I use impossible in the sense that an absolute word may not be possible without the Latin (or the Greek). Thus, one would have of the sun, an adjectival phrase, as in eclipse of the sun or compound sun with another noun, as in sundial or sun god. You may be able to better come to terms with my reasons if you view them as direct responses to the specific questions the OP asked, rather than as general rules for any context :)
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 18:56
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    I don't think it's impossible to form English adjectives where only latin equivalents exist. It's just that we don't, because we HAVE the latin word. Just as someone coined the word "sunny" we could have "sunnic" or "sunnly" or "sunnal" or something else. But we don't, because everyone knows the word "solar". Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 19:33
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    @Mr. Shiny and New: Oh, yeah, I forgot about sunny! But sunnysolar (my fourth reason). Most of the adjectives ending with -al are from Latin, while those ending with -ic are from Greek or French. It's the Saxon words that usually end with -y!
    – Jimi Oke
    Commented Jan 27, 2011 at 19:40
  • The adjective moody comes from moon, and moonly, which I find to be rather elegant is derived from Old English mōnelīc, so it is perfectly possible to create adjectives from "Saxon" words such as sun, moon and hand e.g. handling is still used today.
    – Mari-Lou A
    Commented Apr 14, 2016 at 4:41

To emphasize Robusto's point (3). Sir Issac Newton published his Philosophie Naturalis Principia Mathematica not in English but in Latin in 1687. This was the last major work written in Latin published in England. However, the level of Latin at Cambridge and Oxford was and remained quite high.
Perhaps no more than that of Gottingen or Tubingen in Germany. But "OxBridge" exerted more influence on the Kingdom of England than Gottingen/Tubingen et al exerted on the many German States.
To the English writer back then (and even till the present) Latin roots seem more fitting for abstract words.


All of these answers are Useful and True. I want only to supplement them with two observations:

  • There's a strong 'native' tendency in English to use the bare noun attributively rather than to derive a frank adjective: from your examples, moon beam, side dish, hand axe
  • Where we do have adjectives built with ordinary suffixes, they have often evolved specific senses which do not sort comfortably with a simple "of or pertaining to X": again from your list, moony, sideways, handy

So there's a lot more what-you-might-call "lexical space" to put Latinate adjectives into, and often a specific lexical need for them.

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