What is the etymology of procreo? How does it differ from creo? Does the "pro-" in procreo refer to someone or something specific—e.g., to God or country, in the sense that procreation is for the sake of God or for a nation (natio = birth)?

According to the OED, the earliest English usage of "procreate" is in the context of begetting children for God:

a1525   in W. A. Craigie Asloan MS (1923) I. 301/2   Adam of iijc & xxxti ȝeris procreat Seth of quhom com the sonnis of God.
[Adam of 130 years procreated Seth of whom come the sons of God.]

3 Answers 3


Nothing to do with the purpose, even though prō (as a preposition) generally shows purpose. Weird, isn't it?

Latin really likes to stick prepositional prefixes on verbs; sometimes these change the meaning in predictable ways (ob- makes the action intentional), sometimes they make idioms you wouldn't expect (per-eō "through" + "go" = polite word for "die"), but most of the time they just make the verb more intense.

That's what's happening here. Creō and prōcreō mean the same thing, but the latter puts more emphasis on it.

  • Can't "pro-" also mean "toward" or "forward" like "process" (vs. "recess") or "progress"? It seems it's not just an intensifier or something regarding purpose.
    – Geremia
    May 14, 2019 at 23:26
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    @Geremia "It seems it's not just an intensifier"…why?
    – Draconis
    May 14, 2019 at 23:32
  • Do you have any evidence to support your claim that "pro-" here has "Nothing to do with the purpose"? And what is it about procreo that is "more intense" than creo?
    – Geremia
    May 15, 2019 at 16:47
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    @Geremia Oh, in English the meanings are totally different, yeah ("create" and "procreate" are far from synonymous). I'm talking solely about the meanings in Latin; it's worth noting that Gen 4:25 in the Vulgate uses the unrelated verb pariō instead of prōcreō.
    – Draconis
    May 15, 2019 at 18:21
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    It's not just Latin. Slavonic languages, and to an extent Germanic ones, use a variety of preverbs that seem to be originally directional in a wide variety of senses. Consider understand, withhold and forbear.
    – Colin Fine
    May 15, 2019 at 23:35

The linguistic meanings of creare and procreare are not the same: the latter contains a directional prefix, which indeed has a semantic contribution that goes beyond the meaning of 'in front of'. For example, according to García-Hernández, a Spanish Latinist scholar who has analyzed the very complex topic of Latin preverbs, pro- enters into an important opposition with ob-: e.g., vid. García-Hernández (1991): pro- vs. ob-. In particular, I like his image-schematic representation of Latin preverbs.

It is well-known that the path/directional meaning of Latin preverbs became grammaticalized into other more abstract notions (e.g., aspect; cf. also the "intensive" value attributed by Draconis in his answer). It is worth pointing out that, in the specialized literature, complex/prefixed verbs like procreare or producere are considered as good examples of the so-called "satellite-framed" nature of Latin: path/directionality (and aspect) is typically encoded in the preverb or particle (aka. "satellite") in so-called "satellite-framed languages" (e.g., Early & Classical Latin, German, Russian, etc.), whereas it is typically expressed in the verbal root in so-called "verb-framed languages" (e.g., Catalan, Spanish, Turkish, Japanese, etc.).

Accordingly, a typical linguistic analysis of Latin complex verbs like procreare involves (i) to consider the preverb pro- as the so-called "framing event", i.e., as the main predicate and (ii) to consider the verbal root as the so-called "co-event", i.e., as the subordinate predicate. So procreare (originally) means something like "to bring forth by creating". In contrast, the meaning of creare is obviously less complex since it lacks the path/aspectual meaning attributed to the prefix.

For readers interested in this complex topic of Latin linguistics, here is a recent reference: Latin as a satellite-framed language. Among other interesting things, this author shows a very important parallelism between Latin and Slavic languages (both are classified as "satellite-framed languages" in Talmy's famous typology: A typology of event conflation). Typically, when dealing with verbal prefixation in Latin and Slavic, the prefix expresses the main semantic idea, whereas the verbal root expresses the subordinate one (something similar to the English "out-prefixation construction": e.g., John {outran/outdanced/outdrank/outworked/...} Mary; lit.,'John surpassed Mary by V-ing' (cf. the lexical subordination meaning of procreare above). As noted above, this is also quite typical of other satellite-framed languages like Russian (e.g., see https://www.researchgate.net/publication/248315875_Verb_prefixation_in_Russian_as_lexical_subordination ).

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    Satellite-framed languages = 'float-into' or 'in-float' languages. In contrast, "verb-framed languages" = 'enter-floating' languages. Latin (like Russian) belongs to the first type, whereas Catalan and other Romance languages belong to the second type. Notice that it is a good example that shows that a typological classification of languages can be quite different from a genetic one.
    – Mitomino
    May 19, 2019 at 3:32

Since an individual of a species cannot be the cause of that species (otherwise a human, e.g., would be the cause of himself), it procreates as an instrument of a higher agent (cf. Summa Contra Gentiles lib. 2 cap. 21 nn. 5 & 8).

So, "pro-" in "procreate" most likely means "for" in sense 2a: "instead of", as in "proconsul" or "pronoun".

A procreating being is an instrument of a higher agent (e.g., God for humans, the natural environment for brute animals). The higher agent acts "instead of" the individual/instrument.

  • Downvoter, please explain why you down-voted
    – Geremia
    Apr 15, 2021 at 2:45
  • Going to hazard a guess, but perhaps it is because you explain the term in context of Christianity, but the word procreare is also found in Plautus, Cicero, and Lucretius, so it can hardly have that monotheistic meaning you ascribe (and doesn't seem to be in reference to gods in those passages). L&S's note is informative: "[pro-'s] signification has reference either to place, before, forwards; or to protection, for; procedo, procurro, profanus; procuro, propugno, prosum, protego."
    – cmw
    Oct 7, 2021 at 22:57

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