The etymology of the word parasol states that it arises "from para- (“to shield”) + sole (“sun”)". I would like to know what the two components, para and sole, are called in this example. Units/components might work. But, I suspect that there is a more fitting linguistic term for them ...

Also, would this term also be applicable for the components of words such as jaywalk which is a result of "jay + walk"?

3 Answers 3


Within linguistics, the terminology for parts of words varies according to theoretical perspective. Commonly, though, they are called morphemes.

Morphemes are frequently divided into various kinds, most basically, roots versus affixes. Roots are “open class” items, like objects (cat, chair, paper) or actions (run, arrive, fall), whereas affixes are “close class” items (such as the verbal endings ing, s, ed). That is to say, within a language, the stock of roots is large and expandable (when you encounter a new animal or invent a new gadget, you can coin a new root), whereas the set of affixes is small(er) and generally fixed (people rarely invent new verbal affixes).

Returning to your question, you can refer to para, sol, jay, and walk all as morphemes. Of these, para is an affix, and sol, jay, and walk are roots. Being a combination of two roots, jaywalk is said to be a compound (and, given that you can’t derive its meaning from the meanings of its constituent morphemes, it is said to be semantically opaque, or idiomatic). The root sol (also found in solar, solarium, solstice) does not occur in isolation (as a freestanding word sol), unlike jay and walk. So, it is called a bound root (or a cranberry morpheme, after the cran or cranberry, which also does not occur in isolation); jay and walk are free roots.

  • +1 for a thorough answer. This ought to become canonical for this topic on this site.
    – Robusto
    Aug 4, 2012 at 10:22
  • 1
    But are they morphemes in English if the word is simply imported wholesale from another language? To my mind, para- and -sol are not productive English morphemes, however much they may occur in all sorts of words borrowed from Latin, French, or Spanish.
    – librik
    Aug 4, 2012 at 13:02
  • 1
    There is a further division between inflectional and derivational morphemes. Aug 4, 2012 at 15:07
  • 2
    @librik: ‘Parasol’ has been used in English for 400 years, so I guess that makes it an English word, and both its morphemes are productive of other English words. Are 'parachute' and 'solar' not English words? Aug 4, 2012 at 16:11
  • An illuminating explanation. Thanks Daniel :) Quick note: 'Sol' is a name for our star and is also used to represent one day on Mars, a term which we'll hopefully be hearing more of starting tomorrow! Aug 4, 2012 at 17:02

The smallest unit of meaning is called a morpheme.


It is true that there is a classification of morphemes called "roots", we're interested in etymology rather than morphology. These word parts are etymological roots in English. But since they have no individual meaning in English (English grammar doesn't let me create a word "paralun" describing a parasol used only at night), they are not morphological roots in English.

To confuse things, English etymological roots are often morphological roots in Latin or other languages.

  • So, are you suggesting that it is the 'root' rather than the 'morpheme' that is the basic unit of a word etymologically? If we are speaking morphologically, would that mean that there are no semantically opaque (as per Daniel's excellent answer) morphemes for any word? Aug 4, 2012 at 17:14

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.