I found the following inscription above a sundial outside the York Minster:


This seems extraordinarily poetic to me, for many reasons. One reason is the reversal of prosaic word order, aligning with the reversal of light's ordinary role from what shows us things to the thing being shown. Another reason is more of a guess on my part: does de- suggest a perspective of looking downward upon something—even in the word demonstro? If so, then the sentence reverses light in another way, since normally sunlight is above and shadow is below.

I've been thinking that the primary sense of de is a perspective of "from higher to lower", as in de cælo demissus, descendo, etc., and the other senses, such as "about", "all the way", and "to destruction", are extensions of the primary sense—and as often happens, the primary sense tends to linger on in the secondary senses. "About", as in the topic of a book, fits the perspective of looking down from above, where you can "see" the whole of the topic. Destruere is to send what has been built back down to the ground; devolvere is to roll downhill or delegate authority "downward"; and countless more examples. Deesse is to be away from where you're expected, suggesting that de takes a steady, upright perspective from which other things are perceived as falling down or straying. Even much later neologisms seem to retain this meaning, like "decadent", which seems to emphasize falling away from a higher state of culture. I've inferred this somewhat subconsciously from learning words and reading, not from any explicit description, though I just checked Forcellini and he seems to agree that the spatial sense is the primary one. If I'm wrong about this, please let me know.

Assuming that the spatial sense is primary, then, is it a completely dead metaphor in demonstro or does that word still convey some sense of a perspective of looking down from a higher perspective, somehow "coming down"? Are there other pithy or poetic Latin sentences whose punch derives from activating the downward spatial sense of "de" even in a word that seems to have forgotten it? Or to put this yet another way, what does demonstro have that monstro lacks?

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    While I applaud the effort, I really do not think that the Latin title of this question is clear (I had no idea what I was going to see when I clicked on it) and, for what it's worth, I don't think a Roman would understand the sentence without extra context. My suggestion: "Does de- prefix always have an implied spatial connotation in Latin verbs?" – brianpck Mar 4 '16 at 14:19
  • Given that the question is in English, I don't think it makes sense for the title to be in Latin. – Gilles 'SO- stop being evil' Mar 4 '16 at 19:51
  • @brianpck Could you suggest a Latin version? It's OK if an ancient Roman wouldn't understand it if the concepts of "living" and "dead" metaphors were unknown at that time. BTW, my question is specifically about demonstro, not about de- words in general. I don't think that demonstro is spatial; I'm asking if the metaphor with the spatial meaning of de- is understood—enough to be evoked in Lucem demonstrat umbra. (There may be no way to state the question clearly without additional context, in any language; I took three paragraphs to explain it.) – Ben Kovitz Mar 4 '16 at 21:25
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    @Gilles I'm learning Latin, so I'm using it whenever I can. I couldn't write the whole question in Latin, but I thought I could get the main idea across in Latin in the title. I welcome corrections. If you could rewrite the question entirely in Latin, I'd be delighted! – Ben Kovitz Mar 5 '16 at 3:06

Although de has a spatial meaning, it also has a plethora of other uses that have nothing to do with a relationship of above and below. The Lewis & Short entry lists possible meanings of the de- prefix in II, including:

a. Separation, departure, removal, taking away; off, away, down, out: decedo, demigro, demeto, depromo, descendo, devolvo, derivo, deflecto, etc.; and trop. dedico, denuntio; and in a downward direction, decido, decumbo, deprimo, demergo, delabor, defluo, demitto, desido, desideo, declivis, deculco, degredior, deicio, etc.

b. Cessation, removal of the fundamental idea ( = un-, de-, dis-): dearmo, deartuo, decresco, dedisco, dedecoro, dedignor, dedoceo, denascor, denormo, desum, etc.; and hence direct negation, as in dedecet, deformis, demens, etc

c. 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, through. out: 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.

d. Giving a bad sense to the verb: decipio, delinquo, deludo, derideo, detestor.

e. Rarely, contraction from a broad into a narrow space, together: deligo, devincio

As you can see, the "downward" direction sense is only one way of construing the de- prefix: think, for instance, of dearmo.

The spatial sense applies very poorly to demonstro, which has other connotations, like point:

Demonstra mihi digito ubi habitet.

Point out (lit. show with your finger) to me where he lives.

The above sentence could be written without any violence to idiomatic speech to say: "Montem demonstravit mihi", which actually has an upward sense.

The most common nuance I have come across, especially in Philosophical texts, is that demonstrare means prove:

Magnum periculum summae reipublicae demonstrabat.

He proved (demonstrated) the great danger posed to our great republic.

In this sense, I believe the force of de- comes from sense (c) ("To the uttermost" or "strengthening of the fundamental idea"), just as "prove" means more in English than "show."

Of course, we can speak of how all of these senses derive, in some "fundamental" way, from the spatial sense, but that is an etymological question. Although etymology can elucidate the meaning of a word, it is dangerous to force nuance into a word based on that basis alone.

For more usages of demonstrare (none of which have a downward sense), see the Lewis & Short entry for demonstrare.


This is a tricky question: given the paucity of Latin speakers and the all but nonexistence of native Latin speakers today, how does one interpret the present tense in vivit? Or, put another way, Augustine might have answered this question "no" where Plautus answered it "yes"—obviously language changes over time, not just in its forms (3rd person singular English "hath" became "has") but also in its meanings ("disinterested," for example, used to mean "uninterested" but now means "neutral").

That said, I can add, in line with Alfonso Traina (unfortunately I have only untitled photocopies of sections of his work, so I can't cite it; the ideas in this answer aren't discussed in what I've seen of his, but they pretty much directly follow from it) that the easiest way to understand Latin verbal prefixes, as I discussed in Prefixes in verbs that appear redundant or meaningless: do they really mean anything?, is to think of them as analogous to English verbs that contain prepositions ("sit out," "shut down") or to German verbs with inseparable prepositional prefixes (oddly, the only one that's occurring to me in the moment is auferstehen, "to be resurrected," but that's what comes of too much Bach).

In our case, I'd say that the difference between "monstro" and "demonstro" is roughly analogous to the difference between "show" and "point out." So one way of thinking about the answer is to ask whether "out" is dead metaphor in "point out"; for me it is, which would suggest that de in demonstro is as well. However, another way of looking at the question is to say that, at some point in the history of English, "out" in "point out" was not dead metaphor, which would suggest that at some point in the history of Latin or *PIE de in demonstro was not dead metaphor either.

My suggestion is that, since it appeals to you as a living metaphor, you think of it as one. :)

  • Hmm, to me it seems that the "out" in "point out" is still a living metaphor, suggesting that pointing makes the thing pointed to emerge (in perception) from its surroundings, the same as when something "stands out". The latent spatial sense of "out" is usually dormant but can be evoked in a sentence like "Elgar's jokes lay hidden in subtext until pointed out by my learnèd friend." Now that I've, uh, pointed it out, is it now sussed out for you—does it seem that you had only tuned out the metaphor—now does it practically jump out at you? – Ben Kovitz Mar 4 '16 at 22:17
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    I'm afraid you're out of luck. For me even Elgar's jokes don't evoke the spatial sense of "out." I am, however, not a visual thinker at all, so perhaps this isn't the case for others. I'm sure I'm missing out. – Joel Derfner Mar 5 '16 at 0:33
  • Excellent answer! I understand that your important point ("to think of them as analogous to English verbs that contain pronouns ("sit out," "shut down")") should be replaced by the following one: "to think of them as analogous to English verbs that contain particles ("sit out," "shut down")". – Mitomino May 5 '20 at 16:00
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    Ack! Of course it should say "prepositions," not "pronouns." I'll fix that. – Joel Derfner May 6 '20 at 17:11

For what it's worth, Etymology online glosses the de- here as "entirely," and the OED agrees. Both, however, make the connection between the spatial sense and the "entirely" sense. Quoting the OED:

I.3 Down to the bottom, completely; hence thoroughly on and on, away; also methodically, formally

Of course, the connotation understood by any particular speaker of Latin is much more difficult to prove, but the etymology at least suggests that the spatial sense of de- in demonstro might have been understood at one time.

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