The red car is fast, the blue one is faster, and green is the fastest. As you may recall from grammar class, these three words make up the positive, comparative, and superlative forms of the word fast. But there is a handful of words in English so common that we’ve forgotten they were formed using these -er and -est suffixes. Like upper, which literally means “more up” (up plus -er). But this word has become so familiar that we no longer think of it as the comparative of up. Here are 15 other such words whose origins are hiding right under your nose.
Etymologically speaking, latter just means “more late.” It comes from the Old English lætra (slower), the comparative form of læt, (slow) and source of late. Lætra also carried the sense of our modern later, but the latter word didn’t actually emerge until the 1500s.
And if you’re “most late”? You’re last. Last is the superlative form of læt. Way back, last was latost, and was worn down over the years to last.
Last isn’t always least, as they say, but both words are superlatives. Least—lǽsest in Old English and meaning smallest—is the superlative of lǽs, itself a comparative meaning smaller.
The Old English lǽs gives us less. But if we’re sticklers, lesser is technically a double comparative: “more smaller.” Legendary lexicographer Samuel Johnson couldn’t care less about lesser, calling it “a barbarous corruption of less, formed by the vulgar from the habit of terminating comparatives in -er."
Inner may just make you facepalm: It’s “more in.” The Old English comparative of in (or inne) was innera; the superlative was innemost, now inmost. With use and time, inner became its own positive form, now taking inmost and innermost as its comparative and superlative forms, respectively.
Now, most comparative forms are followed by than, as in "the green car is faster than the blue one." Curiously, inner stopped doing this in Middle English. For instance, we don’t say "the kitchen is inner than the foyer."
The end is nigh: we usually explain that crusty-sounding nigh as near. But near already means “more nigh”: In Old English, near was the comparative of nēah, now nigh. Over the centuries, near went off on its own and is now no longer felt as a comparative, just like inner. And so near is the modern nigh after all.
As for the superlative of nēah? That would be nēahst, “most nigh,” which we now call next. But why the x? In Old English, the h in nēahst would have sounded something like the ch in Scottish loch. Follow that guttural consonant with an s and you eventually get the x sound.
Historically, utter is just outer, or “more out.” Old English had the word út, meaning "out." Its comparative was úterra. By the early 1400s, utter had shifted to its modern meaning of absolute. Also emerging by this time was the verb utter, literally “to put out (goods, money, statements),” in part influenced by the adjective utter.
When utter moved on and lost its association with út/out, it left a gap in the language. Outer, meaning “more out” and formed by analogy with inner, naturally filled it. But like inner, outer has become its own positive form, taking outmost and outermost as its comparative and superlative. The original superlative of út/out would have been utmost, which moved on to mean extreme.
At this point you may be wondering, is further …“more furth”? Yes, it’s just that we’d recognize furth as forth today. This makes further “more forth” or “more fore.” And all that business about reserving farther for physical distances and further for abstract ones? Cockamamie. Farther began as a variant of further—and both of them ousted the normal comparative of far, which was simply farrer. Oh, could English go any farther, er, further to make things complicated?
If further corresponds to “more fore,” then what about “most fore”? That would be first, the “fore-est,” if we gloss over some vowel changes that happened in English long, long ago. It’s a sensible construction: That which comes before everything else is indeed first. Today, "fore-est" answers to foremost.
Everything else is after what comes first. Is after “more aft,” then? Not quite. It’s more like “more off” in the sense of “farther behind” or “more away.” The af- in after corresponds to off (as well as of), the -ter to an ancient comparative suffix. But we’d have to travel back thousands of years before we’d find any speaker would register after as a comparative.
It’s rare now, but English once had the adjective rathe, meaning quick or eager. (We might think of being rathe as the opposite of being loath.) So, if you are “more rathe”? You’re rather. If you’d rather watch paint dry than finish this article, you’d “more readily” do so. Or, rather, you’re the type who finds this arcane trivia edifying. This adverbial rather has the sense of “more properly”; you more truly do something if you carry it out willingly. And if you have your druthers, or preference, you have playfully contracted I would rather.
Literally speaking, your elder is just someone older than you—but you better not say that your grandparents. Elder and older are both comparatives of the Old English (e)aldOlder did not show respect for its elder, supplanting it as the common comparative around the 1500s. The Old English ald, meanwhile, hangs on in the auld of “Auld Lang Syne” (for Old Times’ Sake) and alderman.
Finally, erstwhile is a snazzy word for former, often seen in the expression erstwhile enemies. But what is the erst in erstwhile, anyway? Old English had ǽr (soon, before), which you’ll recognize as ere from your Shakespeare. Its superlative was ǽrest, or “most ere,” hence erst.