"Woollen" is an Old English word that uses the suffix "-en" to turn a noun into a verb. As I understand it, the use of this suffix died out in Middle English.

Do any more modern words use this suffix? Have people mixed and matched, for example taken a Latin word and added on OE suffix?

"En-" as a prefix seems to be (Old?) French in origin, so "enlighten" seems to mix it up a bit.

  • 4
    Verb? Adjective, surely?
    – chaos
    Mar 7, 2011 at 18:11
  • 5
    "Darken" or "weaken" would be a verb, "golden" would be an adjective. All languages should be designed by computer scientists, at least they'd be consistent (though with lots of curly brackets).
    – dave
    Mar 7, 2011 at 18:16
  • What chaos meant is that wollen is an adjective, not a verb.
    – apaderno
    Mar 7, 2011 at 21:20
  • Mmmm are you sure the -en isn't a hangover from OE adjective endings? Another example would include 'sunken', which I don't think is derived from a noun 'sunk'. Mar 7, 2011 at 21:40
  • 2
    Isn't 'sunken' an archaic past participle of 'sink'? Dec 11, 2011 at 13:05

4 Answers 4


You're quite right.

-en as a suffix is of Saxon/German origin.
Made of. In German it is may be a bit oldish but still possible to encounter "wollen" as made of wool ("aus Wolle gemacht"), and quite common to hear "golden" (von Gold gemacht). That's for adjectives.
Plural. For noon, you would have *-en" as a Saxon plural oxen (German Ochsen) or children (Kindern, old-german and dutch Kinderen), bretheren (German: "Brudern", old G. "Bruderen").
In dialectal english you can still find "Hosen" (German "Hosen" => kind of trousers), "Shoon" (G: Shuen), "Housen" (Häusen), "Treen".
Diminutive. Vixen also (German Füchsin : little female of the Fuchs/Fox) is of Saxon origin but this time the "-en" is not the mark of plural.

en- as a prefix this time, is of Latin origin (via French). in- would be directly Latin (sometimes both forms survive : enquiry-inquiry, incase-encase). Strangely enough it also conveys a meaning of "make" as in "turn into" : enslave, enlarge (élargir) enrich (enrichir), enable, endear, endanger.
Some other en- prefixes can be traced back to Greek, enthusiasm, endemic, energy.

However, I don't think there has been a lot of inbreeding between latin "en-" prefix and words of saxon origin. And surely no (legitimate) -en suffix to non saxon words. VAX (meaning Virtual Address eXtension because it was an evolution from 16bits VA space to 32bits VA space) can probably not apply to a Saxon origin ;-).

Many sources: Oxford Dictionary of English Etymology - 1966 Ed.

  • enlighten is from OE **enlīhten**[1]. Gainsay to popular belief, the en- prefix, tho seld-seen, did stand in Old English. The in- prefix was quite common. [1][en.wiktionary.org/wiki/enlihten]
    – AnWulf
    Feb 20, 2012 at 1:34

The suffix -en is used to form adjectives from nouns (earthen, woolen, golden), but also verbs from adjectives or nouns (widen, deepen, loosen, strengthen, embolden, enliven).
The prefix is also used to form feminine nouns like vixen, which has origin from the Middle English word fixen.

  • Yep, but these are Old English words. My question was more about whether the suffix has survived into more modern times.
    – dave
    Mar 7, 2011 at 18:32
  • Minor correction: Loosen.
    – oosterwal
    Mar 7, 2011 at 18:37
  • @oosterwal: Thank you. I keep having problems when I write double letters, with the Mac OS X Lion beta.
    – apaderno
    Mar 7, 2011 at 18:41
  • @dave: The prefix is still understood to be such, nowadays. Does not that mean it has survived? If it would have not survived, loosen would be seen as a word not related to loose.
    – apaderno
    Mar 7, 2011 at 19:02
  • No doubt it has survived. It has survived to the point I did not even think anything strange about it until last night when the word "woollen" popped into my head. I was wondering if it continued to be used as a suffix on post-Old English root words. Do suffixes remain constrained to the root words of their heritage? It has been mentioned about the mixer that is "television" (combining Greek and Latin), have people combined OE and other languages?
    – dave
    Mar 7, 2011 at 20:38

There is only one truly modern word I know that uses the -en ending: Embiggen.

Of course this word was made up for the TV show 'The Simpsons', where the motto of the town is: "A noble spirit embiggens the smallest man." In the show, a newcomer to the town scoffs at the word and the stupidity of the town's natives, but is rebuked with the response, "It's a perfectly cromulent word."

It is notable for its consistent implementation of the -en suffix.

In the '70s and '80s, it was quite common for computer people to use the -en suffix to pluralize computer nouns, such as VAX or box. These would simply become VAXen or boxen, respectively. This practice borrowed the Germanic -en suffix to denote plurals.

  • As I learned it, VAXen and boxen were by analogy to oxen. Jan 30, 2012 at 16:13

The OED gives a few more instances of the -en suffix in this context, such as golden, wooden, earthen. The origin is Germanic / Old Saxon. However, as you pointed out, modern usage of the word is fairly restricted to the few examples quoted.

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