The Negative Prefix il-

By Maeve Maddox

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From a reader commenting on the illegal alien post:

I used to hear from my history teacher in high school that the word “illegal” isn’t actually a word. I never followed up on that notion, but I suppose from popular usage, “illegal” has become legitimized. Do you have any etymological info on that?

The word illegal with the sense of “not legal or lawful” has been in English since 1626. Similar words existed in Middle English and French as early as the fourteenth century.

The expression illegal immigrant dates from 1939 during the British mandate in Palestine. The term was applied to Jews who entered Palestine without authorization.

The word illegal derives ultimately from Latin: legalis “legal” with the negative prefix in-. The n of the prefix assimilates to l in words that begin with l:

illegal: not legal or lawful

illegible: not legible; incapable of being read

illegitimate: not recognized by law as lawful offspring; not rightly deduced; departing from the expected

illiberal: not liberal; not generous; not broad-minded

illicit: not permitted; not allowed

illimitable: not capable of being limited or bounded

illiterate: unable to read or write

illogical: not logical; contrary to logic

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5 Responses to “The Negative Prefix il-”

  • Klepto

    I’ve always wondered about the il- words. Thanks. 🙂

  • Alan

    A minor nit, but if it’s a prefix, shouldn’t the hyphen in the title follow the prefix, not precede it (which it should for a suffix)?

  • Maeve

    Quite right. I’ll fix it.

  • Tariq Jang

    Thanks for putting this usefull information ,,,thnx again
    hope for more

  • Brittany

    So when talking about drug use, is it illegal or illicit? E.G., People who use illegal drugs are more likely to be smokers. OR People who use illicit drugs are more likely to be smokers.

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