The Diversity of Over- and Under- Compounds

By Mark Nichol

Becoming familiar (or more familiar) with words beginning with over– and under– must include taking into account that these compounds can be both literal and figurative (or only figurative but rarely only literal) and can serve as various parts of speech. This post discusses some examples.

Overboard has a literal meaning, referring to someone or something falling or being thrown from a ship or boat. (Board alludes to the wooden deck of a ship.) However, it also has the figurative sense of discarding an idea as if it were being thrown from a ship and of excessive enthusiasm; remarking that someone has gone overboard implies that the person is not on the firm footing of reality or sensibility. Similar, overthrow can be literal, as when describing an athlete throwing a ball too far, causing a teammate to be unable to catch it, as well as figurative, as with the sense of “defeat,” “depose,” or “upset.”

Overhead originally meant, literally, what was above one’s head, but it also serves as a noun with several meanings: It can refer to a stroke that a player in a game of tennis or a similar sport makes over his or her head, to a ceiling in a marine vessel, or to basic business expenses that do not fall under the budget for a specific project.

Overtime is the extra time after the regulated period of play in a competition (as to provide contestants with the opportunity to break a tie) or the standard workday or workweek (or, by extension, the pay for additional time spent working), but it can also refer, more casually, to when participants in a project work extra hours to complete it.

Many words beginning with over-, such as overlook (which can mean both “provide a view from above” and “fail to see”) and overtake (“catch up to and pass”) are verbs, and some in which over is the second element of the compound are nouns transformed from verb phrases, including handover (“transfer”) “and takeover (“forced or otherwise hostile transfer of power”).

Likewise, words beginning with under– serve various grammatical functions. Underhand is an adjective referring to an action undertaken to avoid detection or to a motion made with the hand moving up from below the shoulder (and underhanded means “deceitful”), and as an adverb, it means “secretly” or “with an underhand motion.” Underline and underscore both denote a line inserted beneath one or more words to emphasize them but also serve as verbs with that literal meaning and with the figurative sense of emphasis.

Understand is an outlier, in that it has only a figurative meaning; one does not use the word to refer to posing beneath something. (The Old English word for that action is undergestandan.) The sense is of standing close to or in the midst of something and thus being familiar with it, although under may stem not from the Old English preposition under but from the homonym related to the Latin word inter, meaning “between” (though the homonyms may be directly related). And though underworld once referred to Hades (as well as, occasionally, the earth, as being located beneath heaven), it came to refer to the lowest level in the social ladder and, by extension, the figurative collective of criminals, especially those in organized crime.

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5 Responses to “The Diversity of Over- and Under- Compounds”

  • Dale A. Wood

    More on OVERLORDS:
    Next there came the great novel of science fiction, CHILDHOOD’S END by Arthur C. Clarke, of the 1950s. In this novel, superior aliens came from across the Galaxy to establish their dominion over the Earth. They did this by sending many of their huge, saucer-shaped spacecraft (sound familiar?) to hover over the great cities: London, Los Angeles, Moscow, New York, Paris, Peking, Rio de Janeiro, Rome, Shanghai, Sydney, Tokyo, Toronto, Washington, Chicago, Cape Town, Cairo, Frankfurt, Houston, Melbourne, Mexico City, New Delhi.
    (The same idea was lifted for the American TV series “V” and the American film “Independence Day”. It is little wonder than the aliens hovered over LOS ANGELES, Washington, New York, and Houston, and they flattened all of these.)
    For a long time, the aliens in CHILDHOOD’S END did nothing but communicate by radio, and sometimes to assert their authority by blackening out the skies over places like Madrid and Johannesburg as warning signs. The Earthlings called the aliens “The OVERLORDS”.
    Later on in the book, it turns out that these “Overlords” had the real (almighty) Overlords above them. Not even our “Overlords” understood the real rulers of the Galaxy over them.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Eventually, we reached the 20th Century, and the need for huge military and naval operations that needed secret “code names” during their months and years of planning. These code names were supposed to be obscure and unrelated to the goal at hand. For example, “Operation Husky” was the Allied invasion of Sicily in July 1943, “Operation Avalanche” was the Allied invasion of Salerno in September 1943, and “Operation Iceberg” was the American invasion of Okinawa in April 1945. (Wow, these seem to have something to do with Alaska, Siberia, and dogsleds!)
    In 1944, there came the huge Allied invasion from England to Normandy. This one was given the name “Operation Overlord”, and that code name broke the rules of secrecy! Surely the goal of this invasion was for the Americans, the British, and the Canadians to establish themselves as the Overlords of Western Europe. In particular, they needed to establish themselves as the (temporary) Overlords of France, Belgium, Luxembourg, Holland, western Germany, and western & central Austria.

  • Dale A. Wood

    There is a European word with “over” that has very old and deep roots: “Overlord”. Back in the remote times of feudalism, most of Europe (including Great Britain) was divided into the domains (including “fiefs”) of a variety of different lords, barons, counts, knights, grafs (German for “count”), and nobles who were entitled to honorifics in the midst of their names, like van Dyke, von Richthofen, von Braun, des Cartes (Descartes), de la Fayette (de Lafayette), de Laplace, de LaGrange, van der Waals, and van den Berg (which became “Vandenberg” in America).
    Eventually, there came a time when there were needed “lords above the lords” — Overlords! Over the centuries, these became the ones who were called Duke, Earl, Marquis, Prinz, Prince, Kaiser, Tsar, etc.
    In England, the Duke of Norfolk, the Earl of Essex, the Duke of Suffolk, the Earl of Wessex, and so forth.

  • Dale A. Wood

    Other such words whose meanings might have drifted away as figures of speech:
    {underwrite, undertake}, {overreach, overdraw, overgrow}.
    Here are some nonstandard word with built-in redundancy of expression “to overexcel” and to “overexaggerate”.

    In German, “unter” is “under” and “nehmen” is “to take”. However, an “Unternehmer” is not an “undertaker” (a mortician”).
    An Unternehmer is someone who undertakes big things, a big businessman. We would include Lee Iacocca, Henry Ford, and George Westinghouse who helped electrify industry in America, with the help of Nikola Tesla, who was not an Unternehmer, and J. P. Morgan the big financier who helped them with their financing). Also, we could include Donald Trump, but I am concerned that he has “jumped overboard” in something that is too deep for him…

  • Dale A. Wood

    “Overboard has a literal meaning, referring to someone or something falling or being thrown from a ship or boat. (Board alludes to the wooden deck of a ship.)” This could be true, but I have thought of “overboard” as being over and away from the wooden safety railing (or “barrier”, or “fence”) at the outer edges of the main deck. (In other words, “into the drink” or “into Davy Jones’s locker”.)

    These compounds always remind me of one with “out”: “outstanding”. “Farmer Franklin is outstanding in his field.”

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