I had a really great idea today, at about 08.00am, while I was half asleep. I’ve no idea now what it was, just a vague sense that it was about some words with different meanings that have a shared etymology. Whatever it was, it was interesting (to me), but it’s gone now.
That’s nothing new, of course. And this does tend to happen to me when I’m half asleep. But all isn’t really lost, because this got me thinking about the word asleep. It’s unusual, as an adjective, that it’s so similar to sleep, which of course functions as both a noun and a verb. The construction of asleep involves taking the noun and adding the prefix a- (meaning in or on) to it. Very simple and logical, but not a structure you notice much nowadays.
Looking into the past though, you can find more examples of it. Normally, for example, when you’re asleep, you’re also abed. One of the most common surviving words with this structure is ashore. If something is washed ashore, it ends up on the shore. Similarly, a ship might run aground. Still, even though both words are still in use, they do sound a little old-fashioned, don’t they?
There are a couple of words which are more common though, which share this same basic use of a-. They’re a little more abstract, meaning in the state of, rather than simply in or on in a physical sense, but think about how often you might use simple words like awake (in a state of wakefulness) and alive?
The prefix could also sometimes mean to or toward, which we can see in words like aside or away (to go along a way, from here), and more obscure ones like afoot.
A is the simple, unassuming first letter of the alphabet, but we’d lose a lot from the language if we didn’t have this way to use it that most of us won’t ever notice.