Printable Version
Pronunciation: æn-tee-bel-êm Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: Relating to the period preceding a war. In the US it most often refers to the period prior to the Civil War (1861-1865); elsewhere in the English-speaking world it most often refers to the South African War (1899-1902) or either of the two world wars.

Notes: Because it is literally a Latin, not merely a Latinate, word, antebellum has no direct relatives in English, such as nouns or verbs derived from it. The prefix ante-, however, does appear in quite a few other English words, such as antecedent, antechamber, to antedate, and my personal favorite, antediluvian, referring to something older than the Old Testament flood and Noah, as the antediluvian idea that black cats bring bad luck. Things that go on after a war are, of course, postbellum in nature.

In Play: Even though rowdy Southerners started the Civil War, Americans associate this word with the South before that war: "Many of us picture antebellum southern belles in fluffy dresses and colorful bonnets, sitting on the front porch, while their fathers rock (in the original sense of the word) amiably nearby, sipping mint juleps." Elsewhere, however, this word may be used to refer to either WW I or WW II, so long as the context clarifies which: "After World War II the number of women in the work force did not fall back to antebellum levels."

Word History: This word was simply traced from a Latin phrase, letter for letter: ante "before" bellum "war". Ante and anti "against, opposed to" originate in the same Proto-Indo-European root, ant- "front, forehead". The sense of "in front of" slipped to "opposite" in the sense of living opposite someone, and from there to "opposed to", with the concomitant spelling change of ante to anti. We see ante plainly in anterior and antediluvian "before the flood", but we don't expect it to show up in English as end. Well, antonyms or near antonyms often share origins. English black and French blanc "white" come from the same PIE word, not to mention cold and scald. Bellum "war" has an interesting history, too. It originated as ancient Latin duellum "war", of dubious origins, which poets kept even after it changed to bellum and passed on to French as duel. (Today we thank the postbellum word-watching of Mary Jo Ashcraft-Costigan, who spotted today's Good Word and suggested we run with it.)

Dr. Goodword,

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