Why does “ameliorate” mean “meliorate”?

Q: My question is about “meliorate” and “ameliorate.” They mean the same thing, but shouldn’t the “a” at the beginning of the latter negate the former?

A: These words mean the same thing—mostly.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines “meliorate,” which came into English in the mid-16th century, as “to make better; to improve.”

This meaning is identical to that of “ameliorate,” which entered the language some 200 years later.

But according to the OED, “meliorate” has another meaning the newer verb doesn’t have: “to mitigate (suffering, ill feeling, etc.).” To mitigate a trouble or difficulty means to lessen or alleviate it.

Unlike the OED, however, standard American dictionaries fuzz the difference between the verbs.

The US references  say that to “ameliorate” a situation means not only to make it better but also to make it more tolerable—which sounds perilously close to mitigating it.

So for all practical purposes, the difference seems hardly worth worrying about.

Both “meliorate” and “ameliorate,” according to the OED, can be traced to the classical Latin adjective melior (better), which is the source of the post-classical Latin verb meliorare (to make or become better) and noun melioratio (improvement, betterment).

So how did English end up with two words—“meliorate” and “ameliorate”—when the original one would do?

For the answer, we look to French, which was a strong influence on British usage in the 18th century.

The influence in this case, says the OED, was the French word améliorer (meaning refashioned), which came from an Old French verb, ameillorer (to make better). The French verbs incorporate the preposition à.

English speakers in the latter part of the 18th century began adding an “a-” and using “ameliorate,” patterning this new formation on the French améliorer, when the meaning was to improve or get better.

Meanwhile, the two original senses of “meliorate” (to mitigate as well as to improve or get better) stuck with the original verb.

As for the “a-” prefix, it isn’t always negative (as in “amoral”). Its other meanings include “on” (“abed”), in the act of (“a-fishing”), a state or condition (“afire”), in such a manner (“aloud”), and in the direction of (“astern”).

Check out our books about the English language