The question is not so easy as it seems. Let's analyze some derivatives: abortion, abortive, abortiveness, abortionist. The analysis of derivational suffixes (-ion, -ive, ive+ness etc.) helps to identify the end of the root. But what about the prefix? Is it possible to consider ab- in this word as a negative prefix, as for example in ab-normal or ab-duct?

From etymological point of view the root must be OR (from L. abortivus "pertaining to miscarriage; causing abortion," from abort-, pp. stem of aboriri "disappear, miscarry," from ab- "amiss" (see ab-) + oriri "appear, be born, arise"). What about the root in Modern English (ort or abort) ?

2 Answers 2


It sounds like you've already answered this question for yourself from the etymological point of view.

With regards to modern English, I wouldn't consider the ab- prefix to actually be a productive negative prefix of any kind. In the case of abduct, it's hard to argue that ab- is a negative prefix at all, especially since the stem duct is not obviously related in English to the meaning of abduct. You have to know Latin to make that connection. In the case of abnormal the ab- prefix does attach to an existing word normal, but its meaning here is simple lexical idiosyncracy.

So it is with abortion: I would argue that the stem abort is morphologically simple in English, with the Latinate prefix ab- being an unanalyzable part of the stem from a synchronic point of view. (And most English speakers have never heard of the word ort, and certainly wouldn't connect it in any way to the word abort.)

  • I agree. You could say that a(b) and or(t)- are the roots of this word, but those would be Latin roots, not modern English roots, according to modern definition: an English root is a root that is or once was used to create new words in modern English. One could argue that a word like conortive ("during birth") may be created in the near future by English academics and eventually become accepted; but then it will make more sense to say the word is created in modern Latin. Still, a case could be made. Jun 6, 2011 at 18:09
  • Right. conortive is a nice example here for semantical criterion. But what about identification of roots in the following words: refer - prefer -confer - defer - transfer - infer or relate - collate - translate. We identify here morphemes independently of meaning, just compare these words with those of similar prefix-root structure. As for me, semantical criterion is not universal one for English, in those chains of words with similar prefix-root structure distributional criterion serves better, doesn't it?
    – subic
    Jun 6, 2011 at 19:51

Ort is an archaic word that means "a scrap or remainder of food from a meal." It derives from the Middle Low German orte ("food remains"), which originally was a compound word related to eat.
Ab- is a suffix that comes from Latin, that in English means "away; from."

In Modern English, abort is not composed from ab and ort.

  • Thanks a lot for your examples. But what if we deal here (example from MLG orte is of Germanic origin) with homophones and etymological analysis proves that ab- in abortion has Roman origin with negative meaning.
    – subic
    Jun 6, 2011 at 20:01
  • @subic In Latin, the etymology of the word is ab + oriri, but in English abort is not ab + ort.
    – apaderno
    Jun 6, 2011 at 20:05

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