Q: I’ve told my students that “dis-” is a prefix in “dissenter.” But now I’m being told in grad school that a prefix isn’t a prefix if the rest of the word doesn’t exist. So can I still refer to “dis-” as a prefix in “dissenter”?
A: The “dis-” in “dissent” and “dissenter” is indeed a prefix, especially if you go back to their etymological source, dissentīre, a classical Latin verb meaning to differ in sentiment.
Dissentīre was formed by adding the prefix dis- (in different directions) to the verb sentīre (to feel or think).
The Latin sentīre is also the source of “assent,” “consent,” “resent,” “sentiment,” and other English words, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins.
Can a lexical element at the beginning of a word be called a “prefix” if the rest of the word isn’t found by itself in standard dictionaries?
Well, some dictionaries do indeed define “prefix” in a restrictive way as an element added to the front of a word to change its meaning.
However, the two dictionaries we rely on the most, the Oxford English Dictionary and Merriam-Webster Unabridged, define “prefix” more broadly as an element added to the front of either a word or a stem.
The “sent” in “dissenter” is a lexical stem or base referring to the sense of feeling. You can find the same stem in all the words cited above from Ayto’s etymological dictionary.
The OED defines “dissenter” as “one who dissents in any matter: one who disagrees with any opinion, resolution, or proposal; a dissentient.”
The earliest Oxford citation is from Philosophicall Rudiments Concerning Government and Society (1651), by the English philosopher Thomas Hobbes:
“If any one will not consent … the City retaines its primitive Right against the Dissentour, that is the Right of War, as against an Enemy.” Hobbes had published the work in Latin in 1642 as De Cive (On the Citizen).
The dictionary says “dissenter” was formed by adding the suffix “-er” to the verb “dissent,” which it defines as “to withhold assent or consent from a proposal, etc.; not to assent; to disagree with or object to an action.”
The first OED citation for the verb is from The Orygynale Cronykil of Scotland, a work of history written around 1425 by the Scottish poet Andrew of Wyntoun: “Fra þis he dyssentyd hale” (“From this he dissented wholly”).
The noun “dissent,” which showed up more than a century later, is defined in the dictionary as “difference of opinion or sentiment; disagreement.”
The first Oxford citation for the noun is from The Faerie Queene, an epic poem by Edmund Spenser. The first three books were published in 1590 and the next three in 1596.
Here Artegall, the hero of book five, tries to resolve a dispute: “Did stay a while their greedy bickerment, / Till he had questioned the cause of their dissent.”