Printable Version
Pronunciation: in-têr-ne-seen Hear it!

Part of Speech: Adjective

Meaning: 1. Related to a struggle between entities in an organization, such as a nation or business. 2. Marked by mutual slaughter or destruction.

Notes: Today's word exemplifies the mischief dictionaries can do to language. The prefix inter- in today's word was used in Latin as an intensifier meaning "completely" rather than as a prefix with its usual meaning "mutual, between". Samuel Johnson mistook the prefix, and defined the word as "endeavoring mutual destruction". Johnson's dictionary was so popular, however, that his error became accepted usage. Later, due to yet another misinterpretation of the prefix, the meaning slipped even farther when it began to refer to internal struggle of any magnitude.

In Play: President Bush's Department of Homeland Security was created, among other reasons, to reduce the internecine competition between the various security agencies of the federal government. Today, however, we cannot escape the semantic slippage of internecine; it is ingrained in the language. To speak of World War II as 'an internecine war' would be taken as a reference to a mutually destructive war among nations.

Word History: This Good Word is a modification of Latin internecinus "massively destructive" from internecare "to slaughter", based on nex ([nek-s]) "death", an E-variant of Proto-Indo-European (PIE) nok-/nek- "death". The O-grade form is found in nocent "harmful, guilty", the rarely used antonym of innocent, and in nocuous "harmful". Both are from the Latin verb nocere "to harm or injure". Noxious, alone or in obnoxious, derives from Latin noxa ([nok-s-a])"injury, damage". The E-grade form also turns up in Greek nekros "corpse, body", underlying the other word for cemetery, necropolis "city of the dead". Nectar, the drink of the gods, comes from PIE nek- "death" + tar "overcoming", the drink that overcomes death, and nectarine derives from nectar.

Dr. Goodword,

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