The many ways the para- prefix changes words


I missed posting a blog last Monday because I was off on Scout camp with a great bunch of teens. Amongst learning other skills, like tossing a tomahawk (seriously – it’s a competitive sport), I got the chance to make a keychain from paracord. On the walk back to our camp site I couldn’t help wondering about the origin of para.

paracord keychain

Para crops up in so many terms that clearly it’s a prefix – paralympic, paramedic, parachute, parapluie (umbrella in French), paracord, paramilitary, paralegal, paragraph, parallel, etc. Thinking about it I became convinced it was something to do with air, but thanks to a little digging in the dictionaries, I’ve discovered I was totally wrong. informs me that para usually comes with loan words from Greek and generally means “to one side of” or beside – for example a paralegal works beside a legal team, a paramedic works with medical teams. This works well for parallel, too.

The Online Etymology Dictionary adds to this by adding “beyond” and “against”. I imagine the “beyond” meaning is the one used for paralympic. Might even link into paragon?

This still left me confused on parachute and parapluie but it turns out that these uses of para have a unique French twist – it is “protection against” – chute meaning fall and pluie meaning rain.

That brings me back to my paracord, the tough mini-rope I used in my keychain at Camp North East. It’s named for the cords used on WWII parachutes. Soldiers learned to cut the cords from their chutes after landing as they were handy for tying gear to packs, setting up shelters (something we teach our Scouts too), and the inner strands could even be used for sewing damaged gear. So rather than being the against-cord, I reckon it’s the beyond-cord.

Until next time, happy reading, writing, and wordfooling,


p.s. if you’re interested in paracord projects – check out this link.

Also, crocheters – you can use paracord instead of yarn for more rigid objects.

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