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constitute {verb}     Etymology : [..] con- intensive + statuĕre to set up, place: [...]

6. To make (a person or thing) something; to establish or set up as. (With obj. and compl.) Cf. 2.

8. To make up, form, compose; to be the elements or material of which the thing spoken of consists.

compose {verb}     Etymology : [...] com- together + poser to place, put down [...]

I. To put together, make up.

Abbreviate any 'Inanimate Subject(s)' to IS, and 'direct object' as DO. The OED links above comprise example sentences of the following syntax:

  1. IS composes/constitutes DO.

I paraphrased 'constitute' and 'compose' in terms of their Latin etymons. Then 1 can be paraphrased as:

2. IS 'sets up/places/puts [down] + together' DO.

But 2 doesn't make sense, as being inanimate, IS can't 'set up/place/put' a DO. 2 makes sense only if 2's verbs are interpreted causatively, as in 3:

3. IS causes to be 'placed, put down + [together]' DO.

So does 3 prove that com- is a causative prefix?

  • This question was also asked at Linguistics SE but it is not mentioned here. If you cross-post, please give a link to the other version(s) and explain how the feedback from other other site didn't help. Can you add a link? – Joonas Ilmavirta Aug 14 at 16:37
  • Before trying to answer your question, l'm afraid I need a couple of clarifications: (I) could you please clarify why you are concentrating on the "inanimate" (?) nature of the subject (e.g., cf. the animate nature of the subject in "the people who constitute a jury")? and (II) the Lat. unprefixed verbs statuere and ponere are already causative (in particular, they can be classified as "causative verbs of change of location"). So what's the point? Thanks in advance. NB: unfortunately, I cannot have online access to OED. – Mitomino Aug 15 at 1:23
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No, com- isn't causative in Latin. (I'm going to assume you're talking about Latin compōnō, even though the question only mentions the French and English descendants.)

The original meaning of compōnō was exactly what you'd expect from com- + pōnō—that is, "to put things (pōnō) together (com-)". This meaning is still used in English nowadays: when someone composes a symphony, they're taking a bunch of disparate pieces and elements and working them together into a unified whole.

Over time, though, a metaphorical meaning arose: instead of the subject of the verb being the person doing the composing, the subject could also be the pieces being put together. This is how we get English "component" (from the present participle): a component is something that acts as a part of a larger whole.

So when we say "this window is composed of fifty panes of glass", we're using this second, metaphorical meaning; when we say "Vivaldi composed this concerto", we're using the first, literal meaning. The metaphor is well enough established by now that neither meaning is seen as more fundamental than the other; they coexist peacefully, using context (and occasionally prepositions) to distinguish them.

  • Thanks. I also meant to raise constituere. Can you please expound itÉ – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Aug 14 at 2:32
  • Can you please respond in, by editing, your answer? Comment chains are cumbersome to read. – Greek - Area 51 Proposal Aug 14 at 2:33
  • @Greek-Area51Proposal Constituō is just con- ("together") + statuō ("set up, put in place"). Same shift happened, just later (post-Classical). – Draconis Aug 14 at 2:35

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