The Grammarphobia Blog

Subs and Burbs

Q: Does the “sub” in “suburban” mean substitute and refer to a place that’s a substitute for an urban area? Or does it mean subordinate and refer to a place that’s secondary to a city?

A: Neither, it seems.

One of the meanings of the prefix “sub,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary, is “near to (a particular region or point),” as in the Latin word suburbanus, which means just what you’d think it does. So “suburban” in English means near or adjacent to a city.

The adjective “suburban,” by the way, goes back in English to the early 17th century. The first citation in the OED (from The Faithful Friends, a play of disputed authorship) refers to “some suburbane strumpet.”

The noun “suburb” is even older, going back to the 14th century. In The Canterbury Tales (“The Canon’s Yeoman’s Prologue”), Chaucer refers to “the suburbes of a toun.”

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