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shameless pleading


Family feud.

Dear Word Detective: The word “internecine” is typically followed by words such as “struggle,” “feud,” “conflict,” etc. Isn’t this redundant? — Jacqueline Cohen.

Only mildly, if at all, and that depends on how one defines “internecine.” I knew I should have gone to law school.

“Internecine” (in-ter-NESS-een) is an interesting word because, among other things, its modern definition is the product of a mistake. And it wasn’t just a little mistake, the sort your weird uncle makes when he uses “rotate” to mean “revolve.” This was a mistake made by the most famous dictionary in the English language.

It all started with the English poet Samuel Butler (not to be confused with his grandson of the same name, the author of the satirical novel “Erewhon”). The elder Butler’s “Hudibras,” a satirical poem (satire ran in the family) published in 1663, contained the word “internecine” (“The Egyptians worshipp’d Dogs, and for Their Faith made internecine war.”), which was Butler’s transliteration of the Latin phrase “internecinum bellum,” meaning “savage war of extermination.” The Latin root of “internecinum” is “internecare” (to destroy), formed from “necare” (to kill) plus the intensifying prefix “inter,” giving us a result of “to kill thoroughly,” i.e., exterminate. So Butler introduced the adjective “internecine” to the English language with the meaning “savage and to the death.”

About two hundred years later, in 1755, Samuel Johnson published his seminal “A Dictionary of the English Language,” the first true dictionary of English. In defining “internecine,” however, Johnson misunderstood the prefix “inter” as used in this particular word. In most cases of English words derived from Latin, “inter” signifies “between” or “among” (as in “intervene,” to “come between”). But in “internecine,” the “inter” is an intensifier, meaning “very” or “completely.” Johnson, mistakenly assuming the “between” meaning, defined “internecine” in his dictionary as meaning “endeavouring mutual destruction.”

Johnson’s dictionary was followed by others, of course, and most of them deferred to his definition of “internecine,” making the “mutually destructive” meaning the accepted definition of the word, eventually with the added sense of “between groups with something in common” (“The internecine struggle between the party’s two wings pleased the opposition”). While a few “purists” over the years have objected to this “mutual destruction” meaning, Johnson’s mistake was actually a good thing. English has many words meaning “savage” in this sense (“destructive,” murderous,” etc.), but only “internecine” carries the sense of “mutually destructive.”

So, to return to your question, while one could say that using “internecine” in the old sense of “savage” might be redundant in a phrase such as “internecine slaughter” (because slaughter is always savage), in its modern “mutual destruction” sense it makes perfect sense. Ironically, “internecine” is most frequently used today in a non-violent sense (“The cheerleaders were engaged in internecine squabbling”).

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