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in·ter·nec·ine (ĭntər-nĕsēn, -ĭn, -nēsīn)
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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 internecīnus, destructive, variant of internecīvus, from internecāre, to slaughter : inter-, intensive pref.; see INTER- + nex, nec-, death; see nek-1 in the Appendix of Indo-European roots.]

Word History: 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 the first known attestation of internecine, dating from 1663, it is used with the meaning "fought to the death" as part of the phrase internecine war. How the word acquired its more common modern sense is an interesting story in the history of English. The Latin source of the word, spelled both internecīnus and internecīvus, meant "fought to the death, murderous." It is a derivative of the verb necāre, "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." Samuel Johnson was unaware of this fact 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, Fifth Edition copyright ©2016 by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.
 

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