Preface: I hope for an equally, if not more, instructive answer like this for 'be-'.

[for-:] prefix usually meaning "away, opposite, completely,"
from Old English for-, [1] indicating loss or destruction, [2] but in other cases completion,
and used as well with intensive or [3] pejorative force,
from Proto-Germanic * fur "before, in" (cognates [...]);
from PIE * pr-, from root * per- (1) [4] "forward, through" (see per).

In verbs the prefix denotes (a) intensive or completive action or process, or (b) action that miscarries, turns out for the worse, results in failure, or produces adverse or opposite results. In many verbs the prefix exhibits both meanings, and the verbs frequently have secondary and figurative meanings or are synonymous with the simplex. [Middle English Dictionary]

Probably originally in Germanic with a sense of [4] "forward, forth," but it spun out complex sense developments in the historical languages. [...] Ultimately from the same root as fore (adv.). [...]

I am guessing that forwardness to act, implies interest and willingness to act, which can inspire (a). Please advise whether this previous sentence seems to explain how [4] evolved to mean [2] and (a).

But how might have [4] evolved to mean (b) ( which Etymonline divides into [1] and [3] )?
What shifted semantically?


1 Answer 1


In etymology it is not always possible to clarify things as in mathematics. I guess that the prefix for- has different sources. A look at Latin shows that the prepositions pro (for), per (through) and super (over) may flow together and intermingle when used as prefixes. Latin fidus adj means loyal. Perfidus is the contrary, though actually it means very loyal. Perhaps it was ironic use.

The English verbal prefix for- can have quite different meanings as we see in "to forsee, forgive, forsake, forswear" and it is very difficult or almost impossible to fathom such formations out.

  • What do you mean by saying it has "different sources"? It seems to me that it actually has the same etymology in both senses (and that also goes for Latin "per-").
    – herisson
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 4:17
  • @sumelic I don't believe that for- has one source. The meanings are too heterogeneous. My view.
    – rogermue
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 4:23
  • Doesn't your view conflict with the source that LePressentiment quoted in the original question?
    – herisson
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 4:24
  • In etymological dictionaries you find a lot of things that are very doubtful or even obviously wrong. Etymological dictionaries are no Bibles, but an attempt to clarify things. But it is always necessary to see explanations with a critical eye. It would be a wonder if every etymological explanation were correct.
    – rogermue
    Commented Sep 18, 2015 at 7:50

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