The other day I was wondering about the word surname. What is the sur-? prefix. The etymology, while perhaps not immediately obvious, is quite straightforward; the sur- is a French variation on the Latin super, meaning above or beyond. It comes to us, like many French roots, from the Normans. So a surname is one’s second or higher name, and the word dates to the fourteenth century.

But there are other sur- words, some like surname, borrowed whole from French (Anglo-Norman surnum, early fourteenth century), while others have been formed in English:

surcharge, an additional charge, originally a verb (1429) borrowed from the Old French surcharger and turned into a noun by 1601

survive, to live beyond or after (1473), from the Anglo-Norman survivre, which was formed from the Latin vivere, to live

surpass, to go over or beyond (1588), from the French surpasser.

Oxford English Dictionary, second edition, 1989, s. v. sur-, prefix

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