I was reading a blog post some months ago that happened to contain the word proliferate. Hmmm, thought I, the prefix is obviously the Latin pro- that means ‘forward, forth,’ but where does the rest of the word come from? And isn’t it curious, I also thought, that proliferate looks so much like the English expression pro-life, which conveys an eagerness to have human life proliferate rather than be ended before birth?
The research that I did soon showed that I was wrong about my initial assumption, because the word proliferate has to be analyzed as having a first element not of pro- but of Latin prol-, meaning ‘offspring,’ easily recognizable in Spanish prole, whose senses include ‘offspring, progeny, race, issue,’ and less literally ‘fruit.’ This is the same prol- that appears in proletario/proletarian, borrowed from the Latin proletarius that meant, in the definition of A Latin Dictionary, ‘a citizen of the lowest class, who served the State not with his property, but only with his children (proles)….’ And note that unlike Spanish prole, English prole is a shortened and rather derogatory version of proletarian. A proletario/proletarian, by the way, is ‘a member of the working classes,’ as contrasted with people who are economically better off.
The second element in proliferar/proliferate comes from Latin ferre, the cognate of native English bear, so the compound means ‘to bear children, to bring forth children.’ Based on the semantics, the prefix pro- might just as well be there, and that adds to the coincidental resemblance of proliferate and pro-life.
© 2013 Steven Schwartzman