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I'm curious to know what the difference is between fessus and defessus. Is de- simply acting as an intensifying prefix? Suppose I were tired at the end of night, and wanted to go to sleep. Would I say sum defessus or sum fessus? Or suppose an athlete, after running a long race, was exhausted at the end. Which would be the right choice?

Lastly, which is more common in Latin literature? Do authors tend to choose one over the other?

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Usage

Lewis and Short glosses fessus as:

wearied, tired, fatigued; worn out, weak, feeble, infirm

It lists defessus (which is the past participle of dēfĕtiscor as a synonym. It has a similar meaning:

to become tired or wearied; to grow weary, faint; to be exhausted

So far, this isn't helpful. Our breakthrough comes, though, when we realize that de- can function as an intensifying prefix, as in L&S II.2.c., which includes many examples:

With reference to the terminus of the action: defero, defigo, demitto, etc.; hence also trop., with reference to the extent of the action, to the uttermost, to exhaustion, throughout: debacchor, debello, dedolo, delino, delibuo, etc.: defatigo, delaboro, delasso, etc.; hence freq. a mere strengthening of the fundamental idea, = valde, thoroughly, much: demiror, demitigo, etc.

It is almost certainly in this sense that defessus indicates a more thorough exhaustion than fessus. This is confirmed by the Copious and Critical Latin-English Dictionary:

Defessus: entirely exhausted so as to be obliged to give up.

This aspect of "giving up" appears in other comparative works as well (such as here).

It's impossible to speak of rules, here, but the nuance appears to be something like the following:

Defessus sum quaeritando. --I am tired of looking [so I am stopping].

Fessus sum quaeritando. --I am tired of looking.

Some examples don't include this "stopping" nuance, in which case you are safe to assume that it just is intensitive, e.g. "I am very tired" or "I am exhausted."

Frequency

Both forms are listed as frequent in classical Latin, though fessus is about five times more frequent. This is a difference between common and extremely common, and both are easily understood.

  • Great answer! One question. In your examples, you put the gerund quaeritando in what I assume is the ablative case. Do the adjectives fessus and defessus take the ablative in this construction? e.g. Defessus sum eos pugnando. (I am tired of fighting them.) – ktm5124 Dec 23 '16 at 21:14
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    @ktm5124 Yes, L&S says that it can take the infinitive or ablative (gerund or noun). That quote is actually from Plautus. – brianpck Dec 23 '16 at 21:19
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    For the semantic contribution of de-, compare out in worn out. – TKR Dec 24 '16 at 0:18
  • @TKR Interesting! – ktm5124 Dec 24 '16 at 1:04
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An easy way to think about it (I offer this as a brief addition to Brian's excellent answer above) is that fessus means "tired" and defessus, as TKR suggests, means "tired out." Latin verbs with prefixes often match English verbs with prepositions. (Monstro v. demonstro = "show" v. "point out," etc.)

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    Hmm... I wonder if emonstrare is "to show off". :) – Joonas Ilmavirta Jan 1 '17 at 16:26

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