Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Ameliorate or Meliorate?

In yesterday’s Good Word, meliorate, I claimed that no one knew where the intial A came from in the now more common variant ameliorate. My point was that both forms are acceptable and I focused on meliorate to bring attention to that fact. While focusing on this point, however, I didn’t sufficiently research the origin of the intial A on ameliorate.

However, Paul Johnson and Luciano Eduardo de Oliveira pointed out quickly that French uses only améliorer and, given the fact that English once borrowed heavily from French, this parallel could hardly be coincidental.

Well, they are right. Further digging turned up another instance of a fact that I have mentioned several times in our “So, What’s the Good Word?” series: English often borrows the same word multiply over periods of time. The original victim of English filching was Latin, specifically, meliorare, without the initial A. (English always uses the past participle of the Latin verbs it borrows, meliorat-us in this case.)

However, centuries later, English borrowed the same word again from what had now become Old French and Old French restructured the verb around the phrase à meillorer “to better”. The à was simply absorbed by the verb.

It appears now that meliorate will eventually fade from the language despite the fact that meliorate is shorter and older. Maybe words pass the baton on to younger generations, too.

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