English English language Etymology Expression Language Usage Word origin Writing

Comparatively speaking

Q: Here in Colorado all the TV stations are following a devastating wildfire in the town of Superior. But like Ogden Nash’s language-obsessed Professor Twist, I’m wondering why we have the comparatives “superior” and “inferior,” but not an in-between one like “medior.”

A: True, there’s no comparative adjective “medior” along the lines of “superior” and “inferior.” The closest adjective we can think of would be “mediocre” (middling, average), but it’s not a comparative like the “-ior” adjectives—and no, we don’t recommend “mediocrer.” (We’ll have something to say later about Professor Twist.)

There are English words formed with “medio-,” a combining element derived from the classical Latin medius (middle), but they’re not comparatives. And they’re used only in botany, zoology, and medicine (as in “mediodorsal,” “mediocarpal,” etc.).

If a comparative “medior” did exist, it would be a blend of “medio-” and the suffix “-ior.” But evidently English, sensible language that it is, doesn’t need a word that would mean “more average.”

When we examine comparative adjectives like “superior,” we’re looking at a very simple kind of word. Sometimes there’s no real stem, just a prefix (“super-”) and a suffix (“-ior”).

Words like this have been simple from the beginning. The English suffix “-ior” represents the “Latin -ior of comparatives,” according to the Oxford English Dictionary.

So, for example, the classical Latin adjective superior, from which the English word was borrowed, was the comparative form of superus (upper), derived from super (above).

Similar formations are “inferior,” “interior,” “exterior,” “senior,” “junior,” and “ulterior.” That last one, unlike the others, doesn’t have an opposite.

We’ve already given the Latin etymology of “superior,” which was first recorded in English some time before 1393. Here are the sources of the others, along with the earliest dates given in the OED:

  • “inferior” (probably 1387): from the Latin adjective inferior (lower), the comparative form of inferus (low).
  • “interior” (1490): from the Latin adjective interior (inner), comparative of the preposition and adverb inter (among, between, etc.).
  • “exterior” (before 1538): from the Latin adjective exterior (outer), comparative of exter and exterus (outside, outward), derived from ex (out of).  A related English prefix, “extra-”  (situated outside of), is from the Latin preposition and adverb extra (beyond, outside of).
  • “junior” (1606): from the Latin junior (younger), the comparative form of juvenis (young).
  • “senior” (probably 1397): from the Latin senior (older), the comparative form of senex (old).
  • “ulterior” (1646): from the Latin ulterior (more distant), comparative of an unrecorded Latin adjective reconstructed as ulter (distant), a relative of ultra (beyond), which is the source of our English prefix “ultra-.”

The “-ior” suffix in English, the OED says, was formerly spelled “-iour,” equivalent to the French -ieur, seen in supérieur, inférieur, intérieur, extérieur, and ultérieur.

As for the pronunciation of “-ior” comparatives, Oxford says the “primary stress is usually attracted to the syllable immediately preceding this suffix and vowels may be reduced accordingly.”

For instance, the word “super” is stressed on the first syllable, but in the comparative “superior,” the stress is on the second. In addition, the sound of the vowel “e” in “super” changes in “superior.”

Getting back to your question, one can indeed obsess too much about language, like Professor Twist in Ogden Nash’s poem “The Purist.”

I give you now Professor Twist,
A conscientious scientist,
Trustees exclaimed, “He never bungles!”
And sent him off to distant jungles.
Camped on a tropic riverside,
One day he missed his loving bride.
She had, the guide informed him later,
Been eaten by an alligator.
Professor Twist could not but smile.
“You mean,” he said, “a crocodile.”

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