"Things are so bad that the internecine warriors on the right have begun copying the rhetoric of the old left. In a Washington Times column this week upbraiding dissidents such as Brooks and Noonan, Tony Blankley, the conservative writer and activist, fell back on an old left slogan, asking them: 'Whose side are you on, comrade?' "
-- from a Washington Post column by E.J. Dionne Jr., Oct. 24, 2008
From The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language:
in·ter·nec·ine (ntr-nsn, -n, -nsn) adj.
1. Of or relating to struggle within a nation, organization, or group.
2. Mutually destructive; ruinous or fatal to both sides.
3. Characterized by bloodshed or carnage.
Latin internecnus, destructive, variant of internecvus, from internecre, to slaughter : inter-, intensive pref.; see inter- + nex, nec-, death; see nek-1 in Indo-European roots.]
When is a mistake not a mistake?
In language at least, the answer to this question is "When everyone adopts it," and on rare occasions, "When it's in the dictionary."
The word internecine presents a case in point. Today, it usually has the meaning "relating to internal struggle," but in its first recorded use in English, in 1663, it meant "fought to the death."
How it got from one sense to another is an interesting story in the history of English. The Latin source of the word, spelled both internecnus and internecvus, meant "fought to the death, murderous." It is a derivative of the verb necre, "to kill." The prefix inter- was here used not in the usual sense "between, mutual" but rather as an intensifier meaning "all the way, to the death."
This piece of knowledge was unknown to Samuel Johnson, however, when he was working on his great dictionary in the 18th century. He included internecine in his dictionary but misunderstood the prefix and defined the word as "endeavoring mutual destruction."
Johnson was not taken to task for this error. On the contrary, his dictionary was so popular and considered so authoritative that this error became widely adopted as correct usage. The error was further compounded when internecine acquired the sense "relating to internal struggle."
This story thus illustrates how dictionaries are often viewed as providing norms and how the ultimate arbiter in language, even for the dictionary itself, is popular usage.
The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition copyright ©2000 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Updated in 2003. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.