Assuming that (i) the meanings of vir and femina are indeed opposite and (ii) the meaning of the prefix ex- is quite transparent, why are the verbs evirare and effeminare then synonymous? Are there further similar pairs/examples of verbs in Latin?

NB: one could say that these two verbs are not really synonymous. Properly speaking, evirare means 'to deprive of manhood' and effeminare means 'to make feminine'. Fine, but why does evirare not mean 'to make masculine'? Here I'm interested in how semantics/meaning is related to the morphological structure.

  • I wonder if the duplication of the -f- in effemino isn't perhaps a hint to a different etymology, namely that it is derived from ad + femina (i.e. via *affemino)?
    – gmvh
    Commented May 2, 2021 at 18:44
  • @gmvh I don't think so but it is interesting to point out that both *affeminare and effeminare can be posited in order to explain Spanish "afeminar" and Catalan "efeminar", respectively. Note that the source prefix ex- involved in effeminare is the same one involved in efferare (cf. Cat. "fer (algú) sortir ferotge"; 'to make (someone) to become fierce'). The prefix ad- is not involved in their formation.
    – Mitomino
    Commented May 3, 2021 at 0:54

3 Answers 3


The praefix ex/e/ec- has an 'original' meaning of "out, away" (emitto, evanesco), which also developed into a more general idea of privation or even negation, like "un-" (exonero).

Another later sense is "throughout, to the end", which additionally developed into "thoroughly, completely" (evinco, enarro) in turn.

I suspect eviro "to unman" has the sense of privation, like emasculo "to unman"; but it is not entirely clear in which sense the praefix was used to form effemino.

None of the dictionaries I consulted seem to provide conclusive evidence. I think it may have been the sense of "thoroughly, completely", resulting in "to make utterly feminine".

Alternatively, it may have been formed by some sort of inverted (sloppy?) analogy with eviro and emasculo. It would be an odd analogy, almost the opposite of those verbs, but etymology works in strange ways.

Lewis & Short suggest ec- in effemino has the sense "out of (a former nature)", but I find their reasoning somewhat inconsistent:

Primarily and most freq. of place, out or forth: exeo, elabor, educo, evado, etc.; and in an upward direction: emineo, effervesco, effero, erigo, exsurgo, exsulto, extollo, everto, etc.—

Hence also, trop., out of (a former nature), as in effeminare, qs. to change out of his own nature into that of a woman: effero, are, to render wild; thus ex comes to denote privation or negation, Engl. un-: exanimare, excusare, enodare, exonerare, effrenare, egelidus, I., elinguis, elumbis, etc.—

While effero (efferare), "to make wild", works in the same direction as effemino, their other examples do not: exanimare does not mean "to deprive someone out of his nature into an anima", but rather "to deprive someone of his anima". The root word is the thing one is deprived of, not the thing one is turned into.

Both effero and effemino could be explained based on the sense "thoroughly, completely".

The Oxford Latin Dictionary doesn't tell us much about any of this. De Vaan doesn't mention effemino nor effero, nor yet this specific sense of ex/e/ec, under neither femina nor ferus, nor yet under ex/e/ec, so he probably doesn't have any specific information either.

  • 1
    Many thanks for your interesting answer. I'm not convinced by your proposal that the prefix of the verb effeminare has an intensive meaning ('thoroughly/completely'). Rather my intuition is that the prefix here maintains its original meaning (it expresses a source). In my opinion, the paraphrase put forward by Lewis & Short is very appropriate: 'to change out of his own nature into that of a woman'. It seems that the nominal root of evirare specifies the source (vir) but not the goal, whereas the root of effeminare specifies the goal (femina) but not the source.
    – Mitomino
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 14:14
  • 1
    @Mitomino: Don't you think it's odd how a verb with ec- should specify the goal as its direct object? None of the other verbs do this, with the possible exception of effero. Why not simply femino instead? That would already mean "to change into a woman" without the praefix. So what does it really add?
    – Cerberus
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 16:04
  • @Mitomino Do you have a specific comparison to your derivation of effeminare?
    – cmw
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 19:56
  • This quote from Gibert-Sotelo (2017:325) can be a bit illuminating: "Brachet (2000) concludes that the primitive function of the prefix was that of introducing a complement specifying the initial state of a change of state event, an initial state that happens to be the opposite state of that expressed by the (“adjectival”) root and that corresponds to an inherent condition of the entity undergoing change (which is that of being masculine in the case of effemino ‘to make feminine’, that of being bitter in the case of edulco ‘to sweeten’,...)". tdx.cat/handle/10803/461414#page=1
    – Mitomino
    Commented May 5, 2021 at 23:33
  • @cmw The relevant reference/monograph mentioned by Gibert-Sotelo (2017) is the following one, which, unfortunately, I don't have at my disposal now. Brachet, Jean-Paul (2000). Recherches sur les préverbes de- et ex- du latin. Bruxelles: Latomus.
    – Mitomino
    Commented May 6, 2021 at 0:04

This very recent question reminded me of the older one above [note for the coordinators: I don't know if I have to answer here or there].

Cerberus put forward what appears to be -at least initially- a plausible proposal: the prefix of the verb effeminare has an intensive meaning ('thoroughly/completely'). This proposal could be said to hold for some prefixed deadjectival verbs like emollire (see below for more examples) but not for the present complex word, i.e. for effeminare. In fact, my intuition is quite different from the one expressed in Cerberus's answer. I think that the prefix here does maintain its original meaning: i.e. it does express a source. In my opinion, the (partial) paraphrase of effeminare provided by Lewis & Short at the end of this lexical entry is, indeed, very appropriate: 'to change out of his own nature into that of a woman'. Note also that the root of effeminare specifies the goal (femina).

Similarly, Michèle Fruyt, a distinguished expert on Latin word formation, has recently said the following regarding the contrast between effeminare and emasculare. Note that, following Lewis and Short above, she also advocates attributing a source state meaning to the prefix of effeminare.

le préverbe e- dans les deux lexèmes a des fonctions différentes et même opposées. Ici dans ef-femina-re, ex- renvoie à un état antérieur opposé qui a été quitté et la valeur sémantique du verbe repose sur la base du verbe. Au contraire dans emasculare, e- renvoie à l'idée d'arracher et relève du type 2 edentare 'arracher les dents'. [bold mine, Mitomino: literally, 'Here in ef-femina-re, ex- refers to an opposite previous state that has been left'.]

Fruyt, Michèle (2017). "Les verbes parasynthétiques en latin: les 2e et 3e types". De lingua latina. Revue de linguistique latine du Centre Alfred Ernout 13: 1-33.

It is also worth pointing out that in the case of effeminare, the root is a noun but it does not express an entity but rather a property, which makes it compatible with the pattern of prefixed verbs like efferare, emollire, exclarare, exhilarare, edulcare, etc. So in efferare-type verbs (effeminare included!) the root expresses the abstract goal (i.e. the final state), whereas the prefix points to the source (i.e. the previous state) that is not linguistically expressed. Following Lewis & Short's paraphrase of effeminare above, the meaning of efferare would be: 'to cause X to go out of his previous state into that of fierce' (where X is the direct object of the verb). See the appendix below for a relevant typological issue that provides evidence for this meaning/paraphrase.

In contrast, as noted above, the formation of evirare and emasculare can be based on the productive pattern of exoculare, elinguare, edentare, i.a., where the nominal root expresses the dislocated object: i.e. 'to remove the man (understood as a property: manliness) from X', i.e 'castrate X' (X = the direct object of the verb). Alternatively, evirare and emasculare can also be formed from the pattern exemplified by prefixed verbs like erudire, where the root expresses the source state: cf. lit. 'to cause the direct object to go out of the state of rudis' with lit. 'to cause the direct object to go out of the manliness.' The pattern of the prefixed deadjectival verb erudire is that of prefixed denominal verbs like eliminare, expectorare, exterminare, etc., where the root expresses the source (note that the (dis)location pattern of these verbs is different from the dislocatum object pattern of the exoculare-type, where the root expresses the dislocated object).

A final word about the structural ambiguity in morphology is perhaps in order: perhaps some of you will be a bit puzzled by the fact that the same verb can be classified into different patterns. For example, exanimare and erradicare, i.a., have been said to have a (dis)locatum reading (see the pattern of exoculare or edentare, where the nominal root is the dislocated figural object) and a (dis)locatio reading (see the pattern of eliminare, where the root is the source). In contrast, as predicted, the simple verb animare could only have the locatum reading (please see this link for related discussion). This kind of ambiguity should not be surprising since it is found in many languages: e.g. in English a denominal locative verb like 'to shelve' is typically used as a location verb ('to put X onto shelves') but can also be used by some speakers as a locatum verb ('to cover X with shelves').

APPENDIX on "implicit sources":

As pointed out in my comments to Cerberus's answer, it can be useful to take a look at a Romance language like Catalan to understand a relevant typological issue involved here. The famous Talmian distinction between satellite-framed languages (e.g. Germanic languages, Slavic languages, Latin, etc.) vs. verb-framed languages (e.g. Romance languages, Turkish, Japanese, etc.) can shed some light on this issue: e.g. cf. the Path prefix (Talmy's satellite) ex- in efferare (and effeminare) with the Catalan verb sortir in Cat. 'fer sortir ferotge' (lit. 'to cause the direct object to go-out (i.e. become) fierce', where 'fierce' is the final state, i.e the abstract goal. The resulting meaning is not that 'one exits the state of being fierce' but rather 'one becomes fierce'.The Cat. verb sortir in '(fer) sortir ferotge' and the Lat. prefix ex- in efferare point to the implicit source but what is expressed (morphologically in Latin and syntactically in Catalan) is the (abstract) goal, i.e the final state.

  • Cf. Dutch ont-, which forms verbs like Like Latin e-, denoting separation, removal, away from: ontwarren "untangle", ontvellen "remove skin from", ontpitten "remove pit", ontnemen "take away", ontmannen "castrate, emasculate", etc. A big exception is ontnuchteren "to make sober" (usually as in alcohol). It is from nuchter "sober, fasting" (which is from Latin nocturnus "nightly prayer", in Germanic "earliest service which was before breakfast"). Ontnuchteren can also mean "break fast", but that is (now) uncommon; normally it means "make or become nuchter". ...
    – Cerberus
    Commented Apr 10 at 4:46
  • It seems ont- gained a secondary meaning of "beginning to make/be X", from which ontnuchteren was made. So I would say the praefix ont- is originally about a movement away from something, but also came to mean any process of change, occasionally. The flip in semantic roles of the object and the root of the verb was apparently not a problem. An intermediate word may be ontbloeien "begin to blossom", perhaps "blossom out of", not "remove blossom".
    – Cerberus
    Commented Apr 10 at 4:50
  • Cf. femino "make feminine, turn into a woman". publikationen.badw.de/de/thesaurus/lemmata#42083
    – Cerberus
    Commented Apr 10 at 5:09
  • @Cerberus Thanks for all this interesting set of data of a satellite-framed language like Dutch. As you know, Latin is also of this type, whereby I agree with you that it is indeed interesting to make some relevant parallelisms between these two languages. Many years ago, when I was a graduate student, I read this interesting paper by Baayen & Lieber: link.springer.com/chapter/10.1007/978-94-017-3712-8_3
    – Mitomino
    Commented Apr 10 at 18:02
  • @Cerberus Given your comments above, I'm not sure if you try to make a connection between the exceptional verb ontnuchteren and effeminare by saying that both involve a causative prefix. So I'm not sure if you want to adopt this new analysis (the prefix lost its source meaning and merely encodes causation) or you want to stick to the previous proposal you made in your answer: the prefix has an intensity meaning. As you see in my answer, as for the structure & meaning of effeminare, I am more sympathetic with Fruyt's (2017) conservative proposal (see the reference above).
    – Mitomino
    Commented Apr 10 at 18:15

Here's my initial takeaway:

According to the Wiktionary links you included, evirare is a contraction of ex-virare, so something like "to take out of a man". In Greek (maybe sometimes in Latin too), this use of ex- (Greek εξ-) would take the genitive as a genitive of separation (as in "he came out of the woods, he walked out of the house" in English). From what I've encountered, this use is usually soaked up by the ablative case in Latin which Greek does not have.

Neither in Wiktionary nor in Lewis and Short is effeminare described as a contraction with ex-. For now, I assume it's just a simple verb-ization of feminare with the e maybe a vocal affect (I'm thinking of Spanish "espiritu" from spiritu, or "estar" from stare).

If we do take effeminare to be a contraction with ex-, it would be comparable to the Greek genitive of accompaniment, which, despite using the same case and form, does hold the opposite meaning. We do this in modern English too: "out of curiosity" would probably be more sensible as "in curiosity", "out of sheer force of will" as "in sheer force of will". Meanwhile, the word "out" holds perhaps an opposite meaning in phrases such as "out of line" or "out of order". Particularly in the second phrase, "out" holds the opposite meaning to "in", but "out of curiosity" and "in curiosity" are synonyms.

The other classical language example I can think of where a prefix/preposition can hold opposite meanings is the distinction between the Greek alpha privative and the copulative alpha. Both consist of the prefix α-, but while the alpha privative negates the following word (think modern English "atypical", "asexual", "apolitical"), the copulative expresses sameness as in the Greek word for brother, αδελφος, meaning literally "of the same womb".

In summary, I don't think effeminare is a contraction with ex-. But if it is, that's okay, because ex can have either an inclusive or an exclusive meaning.

  • 3
    Spanish estar etc come from a phonological change: Latin allowed certain types of initial consonant clusters, but Western Romance didn't, so a vowel got attached to remedy that. But Latin had no issue with initial f, as seen in the word femina itself.
    – Draconis
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 18:52
  • 1
    Welcome to the site, Isidoritas! The last point about ex- having both inclusive and exclusive meaning is very interesting. Can you expand upon it with an example of both?
    – Joonas Ilmavirta
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 19:10
  • 1
    @JoonasIlmavirta here's the link: perseus.tufts.edu/hopper/…
    – Isidoritas
    Commented Apr 6, 2020 at 19:25
  • 3
    I fully agree with Joonas's comment above. Your last point, Isidoritas, seems to be very interesting. By the way, cf. the following information by the end of the link you've provided in your last comment above: "B. Signification. 1 (...) .—Hence also, trop., out of (a former nature), as in effeminare, qs. to change out of his own nature into that of a woman; effero, are, to render wild". So perhaps you would like to modify your answer above accordingly.
    – Mitomino
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 0:08
  • 1
    @Mitomino Jeez! That sure is embarrassing. Thank you for correcting me. What's your take on the role of ex- in this word (and in general)? By the way, when I was describing an "inclusive ex-", I was thinking of phrases like ex animo.
    – Isidoritas
    Commented Apr 7, 2020 at 2:40

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.