The suffix -ful usually means characterized by or in full measure as in hateful and spoonful. But an animal's pitiful cry is not full of, or characterized by, pity, and the fearful symmetry of Blake's tyger is not full of fear. These meanings run counter to what one might naively think. How did this come about? I understand that the suffixes -ful and -ous are part of the battle between words that come through French and those that don't. Sometimes the meanings of prefixes and suffixes change dramatically at the hands of the French. Para- usually means beside, but in words through the French, like parachute, paraph and parasol, it means against. Does this have any bearing on my question? I see the meanings of piteous and pitiful are frightfully close.

  • Interestingly, "hateful" can also mean "evoking hatred" rather than "possessing hatred."
    – herisson
    Aug 29, 2016 at 15:27
  • 1
    The two different senses of para- are etymologically distinct: the ‘beside’ one is from the Greek preposition παρά ‘along, beside, etc.’; the ‘against’ is from Romance languages and is verbal in origin, from parar(e) ‘stop, block’. Romance languages often employ verb-object compounds (which are extremely rare in native words in Germanic languages), and parachute is literally a ‘stop-fall’, parasol a ‘stop-sun’. Other examples of this are Fr. porte-monnaie ‘carry-money (= wallet)’ or Sp. chupa-cabra ‘suck-goat (= chupacabra)’. Aug 29, 2016 at 16:03
  • @Janus Bahs Jacquet Your observation about the origins of verb-object compounds is insightful. I suppose "portmanteau" is another example, which I would have pinned on the French.
    – Airymouse
    Aug 29, 2016 at 16:36
  • @Airymouse Yup, that’s another one. When creating nominal compounds from verbal phrases, Germanic languages tend to have the object preceding the verb and sticking with agent nouns (truck-driver) or participles (happy-looking, shit-faced). This type of compounding is virtually unknown in the Romance languages, where instead the terpsimbrotos type is used: the verb comes first (usually just the inflectional stem is used), followed by the object. There’s no morphological marker to show agent nouns, but the meaning is still agentive. Aug 29, 2016 at 17:47

2 Answers 2


The Online Etymology Dictionary notes

Most English -ful adjectives at one time or another had both passive ("full of x") and active ("causing x; full of occasion for x") senses.

Consider the following: an act of gang violence can be disgraceful (effecting disgrace) or a gang can be disgraceful (marked by disgrace); a joyful person feels joy, while a joyful occasion brings joy; a regretful decision may be one that causes regret but a regretful person demonstrates regret.

But in other cases, one or the other meaning never developed, or has died out. For example, the oldest meaning of pitiful in the OED is

(from ca. 1350) 1. Full of or characterized by pity; compassionate, merciful, tender. Cf. pitiable adj. 1.

But it is Now rare., and later senses of pitiful as something deserving of pity and thence contemptible have become the dominant meanings.


It appears to be from the original Old English meaning of "ful": characterized by:


  • word-forming element attached to nouns (and in modern English to verb stems) and meaning "full of, having, characterized by," also "amount or volume contained" (handful, bellyful); from Old English -full, -ful, which is full (adj.) become a suffix by being coalesced with a preceding noun, but originally a separate word. Cognate with German -voll, Old Norse -fullr, Danish -fuld. Most English -ful adjectives at one time or another had both passive ("full of x") and active ("causing x; full of occasion for x") senses.


Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.