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Over and under

October 12, 2020

A friend of mine, Mr David Alterman, has recently been enquiring about the words over and under and the range of words in which they are suffixes. In their roles as prepositions or adverbs they are simple antonyms. That’s straighforward enough. Over means above, higher or more than; under means below, lower or less than. But when we come to compound words the story is not so clear. In many cases, indeed, they are opposites – if something is underdeveloped it is not developed enough, if  overdeveloped it is developed too much. On the other hand, overtake and undertake are not opposites. It is a litte difficult to pinpoint what work the prefix is actually doing in those words. 

Moreover, under- does not always connote lack, insufficiency or subordination. Sometimes it suggests something more like strengthening or supporting: underpin, undergird, underwrite. Perhaps understand belongs to this group too? Over, meanwhile, does not always suggest excess or on-topness. There are words in which it connotes spread or extent – as in overall or overgrown (which, as Dave points out, makes an odd pairing with undergrowth). 

I don’t have a theory for why these words have acquired such diverse connotations. All I can say is that they are venerable words, found in Old English. Under was exactly the same word in Old English, while over was written ofer. (I remember learning the word ofermode from the 10th century Anglo-Saxon poem The Battle of Maldon, meaning rashness or overconfidence). So they have had plenty of time over the centuries to expand their semantic reach.

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  1. Simon Carter permalink

    In the Civil Service a Secretary could work for an Under Secretary.

  2. Mark Brafield permalink

    Back in the days of the Mike Yarwood show, I particularly used to enjoy his impression of the rugby commentator Eddie Waring, which always featured something called an ‘up and under’. I was never entirely sure whether this was a real rugby move or just something that sounded funny for the purposes of the impersonation; if it was real, I have no idea what it might have been.

  3. Simon Carter permalink

    I think an ‘up and under’ was the equivalent to what used to be called a Garryowen or box kick in Rugby Union when a player, usually the scrum half, kicks the ball slightly ahead and virtually straight up and then chases.

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