One of the joys of having studied Latin and Greek at school and college is that sometimes you know what a word is even though you’ve never seen or heard it before, even if it’s on its own with no guiding context.

The example I always used to give was ‘autobiography’, composed of 3 Greek words: auto, meaning self; bio, meaning life; and graphy, meaning write. That’s an easy one though! Prepositions can give excellent clues as to what sense to make of compound words. To digress for one moment: the word preposition itself, somewhat deliciously, also contains a preposition. Anyway, take a Latin word like fero, meaning carry. It gives you all manner of compound words like infer, transfer, offer, differ and so on.

There must be a hundred prepositions in use; they’re jolly handy. Most of them give obvious clues, like inter of international – between, trans of translate – across, with the juicy bonus of the ‘late’ part being from the same root word as fero, and tele of television – also across.

I thought I’d share a few others with you that are perhaps less obvious and more obscure.

Epi (Greek for on as in on top of), which helps with the words epitaph, epigram, epidermis.

Peri (Greek for around), giving us the fabulous peripatetic, periphrastic and – unlucky for some usually in this context – peridontal. See how the second half of the word stays with the Greek and uses dontal for tooth, rather than the Latin dental? Cool isn’t it?

Ante (Latin for before, not to be confused with Anti which is against), giving us antediluvian, antecedents and anteater – just kidding about the last one…

Cata (Greek for down), hints at the meaning of catalogue, catastrophe and, somewhat uncomfortably I would imagine, catheter.

Cum (Latin for with), giving us a host of words beginning with co-, like collusion, convention, composition, colloquial and so on.

Ultra (Latin for beyond), leading to ultrasonic and loads of aspirational business product and service names like ultraflex.

The classical scholars among you will have noted that many ancient prepositions have multiple meanings in English. I have, for this post however, tried to stay with the main meanings. You could also make the argument, and be on pretty solid ground, that for every example I’ve given there are as many others where the preposition means something else.

It’s simply a guide. The only way is to immerse yourself in the language(s) and you’ll be the richer for it :-).

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