I saw some words on etymonline, started with s-, which seems meaningless For example, slack actually means "lax". There are also other words, if you delete the starting letter s or f, they are still words, but may have related or different meanings.

I haven't found where this has been mentioned or summarized. So is it true that s- and f- can be meaningless prefixes? What have you found?

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    There are quite a few Indo-European roots that appear either with or without a prefixed s. This s is called s-mobile. I can’t think of any similar thing with f, though. Could you give some examples? (There is a regular correspondence between inherited English words that begin with f and borrowings from Celtic languages that begin with nothing; but that is simply because /p/ was lost in Celtic) Oct 29, 2013 at 18:41
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    @Tim each of these examples is a word without the f but a very different one, flocklock, flatterlatter etc. Oh and an example in a similar vein which uses a vowel is fear and ear but, again, these are very different words. I think your point about s is very interesting but does not extend to f.
    – terdon
    Oct 29, 2013 at 20:00
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    @Kevin, I do believe that must be the most common car name within the (admittedly small) community of scholars of Indo-European linguistics. (Personally I don’t drive, so I’m not really eligible) Oct 29, 2013 at 20:04
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    @Tim, I missed the bit where your question says, “but may have related or different meanings”. With different meanings, it’s often just coincidences. You can find examples of that with almost any initial letter—‘crate’, ‘grate’, ‘irate’, and ‘rate’ are all words, but they are not related just because they all happen to be the same apart from the presence or quality of the first sound. Oct 29, 2013 at 20:06
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    s and f are not meaningless productive prefixes in English. Look at all your examples. Check their etymologies in etymonline. Do the words have the same meaning? Of course not. Would you ask the same thing of bat, cat, fat, hat, mat, pat, rat, sat, and at? There's no pattern here. Please do some research -and- some thought before asking questions. Your questions are all interesting at first glance but make sure they pass the 'research and thought' test before posting.
    – Mitch
    Oct 30, 2013 at 0:23

2 Answers 2


Letters are not generally prefixes. I know of some words (e.g. pseudonym) where you can remove the first letter and it sounds the same, others might have the same meaning.

The English language is very complicated, made more so by the splitting of the language into various sects (e.g. American English, British English). Spelling has evolved over hundreds of years, manipulated by assumptions (e.g. assuming Greek or Roman origins of words), dictionaries being written by people who are not English speakers or familiar with the English language (16th and 17th century and earlier) or a desire to make words more logical for people newly learning the language (modern times), which is further complicated by the fact that spelling reform cannot be done at once as it would cause confusion between words. There are a lot of illogical and unnecessary spelling conventions that are hold overs from older times.

The three most influential spelling texts to this day are as follows:

  • Johnson's Dictionary aka A Dictionary of the English Language, circa 1755
  • An American Dictionary of the English Language (Noah Webster), circa 1828
  • Oxford English Dictionary, circa 1857

More on Spelling and Spelling Reform

The only instance I can think of where a single letter is used as a prefix is a-, which is a negative prefix (e.g. asexual, atheist, apnea).

More on prefixes


Yes there are, but they are far from meaningless. When the prefix 'f-' is removed, the word Flock becomes the word Lock. These two words have quite different meanings. The removal of the 'f-' prefix impacts the meaning of the word, so they indeed have meaning.

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    F is not a prefix in that word (nor in any other word that I know of in English, for that matter). The fact that ‘lock’ and ‘flock’ are the same word apart from the f does not mean that the f in itself meaningful—it's not. Nov 7, 2013 at 22:03

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