Inter (and Intra-) necine?

You probably have used, or heard used, the word internecine. But what could the word intranecine mean? Either you have an intuition regarding this or you don’t (even if you’ve never encountered the word). If you do have an intuition about intranecine, take a minute to examine it–what basis can you come up with for it?

Back to intranecine in a moment. But let’s start where it starts, with internecine. What does this word mean, and how is it pronounced? A few days ago I came across this in a book on modern poetry:

This excitement draws a veil over the factionalization of the American Left at at this time, engaged as it was in internecine struggles.

I think the author of this sentence is using internecine to signify something like “between factions,” i.e. the struggles described are occurring between the factions that have emerged within the American Left. He has analysed the word etymologically as inter (between) + necine (factions/groups/parties). But what Latin root would give us –necine as group? Any intuitions here–what other “faction” type words have similar morphemes? My guess is that for most people, unlike inter-, -necine suggests nothing on its own, and the “faction” sememe has been inferred from context.

It is an analysis shared, I think, by the following recent authors:

  • …he had not taken part in the cliquish internecine rivalries that had plagued the officer corps. [Hallowed Ground,  2003]
  • Northern and Southern factions struggled for power in a series of internecine clashes… [Seizing Destiny, 2007]
  • …the Weekly Standard, the magazine of record when it comes to internecine Republican warfare. [USA Today, 1997]

The earliest such usage in COHA is from 1863:

  • The result of emancipation must be, not the amalgamation of the races, not an internecine war between them, but the inevitable extinction of the weaker race by the competition. [Continental Monthly, 1863]

What I like about this last passage (the only likeable thing about it) is that it appears to use internecine almost as an antonym to its original meaning, which is not between anything, but rather total something – total death and destruction. For that is the root of -necine: from  necāre, to kill.

OED2 gives us the following definitions for internecine:

1. orig. Deadly, destructive, characterized by great slaughter. internecine war, war for the sake of slaughter, war of extermination, war to the death.

2. esp. (In modern use.) Mutually destructive, aiming at the slaughter or destruction of each other.

Now maybe the second sense, in use from 1775, could account for the 20th century examples I cite, in a hyperbolic metaphorical way: I don’t think the American Left, or the officer corps, or the Republicans were intending mutual slaughter within the ranks, but perhaps the results of these petty fights were bad on both sides (but what fight isn’t, to some degree? – and doesn’t the “cliquish” in “cliquish internecine rivalries” pull strongly against “mutual murder,” towards “petty”?).

The final author, however, opposes “internecine war between them” to “extinction of the weaker by the stronger”, which is what the result of internecine war between factions would be, certainly in the first definition, and possibly in the second as well. And the more the inter- morpheme stays meaningful, the less productive -necine is, reducing the meaning of internecine to not much more than just “between things.”

OED2 has a great explanation of how two poets shaped the destiny of this word in English:

App. first used as a rendering of L. internecīnum bellum, in Butler’s Hudibras (to which also is due the unetymological pronunciation, instead of inˈternĕcine). On this authority entered by Johnson in his Dictionary, with an incorrect explanation, due to association with words like interchange, intercommunion, etc. in which inter- has the force of ‘mutual’, ‘each other’. From J. the word has come into later dictionaries and 19th c. use, generally in the Johnsonian sense.]

So the word came to us in a poem (in 1663), the meter of which required a certain incorrect or unetymological pronunciation–it should technically be inTERnecine, not interNEcine, but try that in these tetrameters: “Th’ Egyptians worshipp’d dogs, and for | Their faith made internecine war.” It was then incorrectly redefined by another poet, a hundred years later (in 1775), whose lexicographical authority propelled it towards its current sense, where -necine seems to have lost most of its ‘killing’ connotation, attracting a “group/faction” connotation by reanalysis and contextual inference.

As a final set of evidence, witness the logical extension of this change: if inter-necine means “between factions,” why not intra-necine for “within factions”? Indeed that’s exactly what we find in recent publications, all but the first from academic and scholarly presses (with paid proofreaders):

  • He had declined to participate in the family’s inter- and intranecine emotional football games. [The Chaneyville Incident (2013)]
  • Thus, controversial treatment issues in the addictions reflect not only the usual inter- and intranecine battles among professionals and scientists that occur in various disciplines… [Science and Pseudoscience in Clinical Psychology (2012)].
  • When both the competitors belong to the same species it is called intraspecific competition (intranecine) and when competition is among the individuals of different species, it is termed interspecific competition (internecine). [A Complete Course in ISC Biology, 1997]
  • It will argue that patterns of venality, rapid ennoblement, and social mixing aggravated intranecine resentments, making large segments of the nobility feel and act like victims of the Old Regime’s system of social privilege. [Tocqueville and Beyond (Associated University Press: 2003)]
  • The final discursive thrust of Wells’ interrelated themes of dehumanization, subjugation, colonialism, and intranecine betrayal ultimately invalidates any simplistic formulae that would identify either the Martians as ‘evil’ or advanced. [Rumours of War and Infernal Machines (Liverpool University Press: 2003)]
  • The activities of native police or troopers recruited and armed by settler authorities to put down their tribal enemies and other intranecine conflicts… [Colonial Subjects (U. Michigan Press: 2000)]

Still, I wouldn’t recommend this word in your college paper on whatever conflicts you might be studying. If your subject is Dr Johnson, however, I have no intranecine quarrel with you.


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