Below are some examples of terms in philosophy with Latin etymons, whose semantic changes elude me. For example, how does adding the prefix 'sub-' to 'contrary' motivate the definition of 'subcontrary' (ie: what is 'sub-' about the definition of 'subcontrary'?)
Also, why 'subalternation'? What is alternated? And why the prefix 'sub-'?

Source: p 262, A Concise Introduction to Logic (12 Ed, 2014), by Patrick J. Hurley

The traditional square of opposition applies to categorical propositions when the Aristotelian standpoint is adopted and the subject term refers to existing things:
• Contrary: Holds between A and E. At least one is false.
• Subcontrary: Holds between I and O. At least one is true.
• Subalternation: Holds between A and I and between E and O. Truth flows downward and falsity flows upward. [...]

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    How is this a question for philosophy.SE rather than English.SE ?
    – virmaior
    Dec 25 '15 at 2:04
  • @virmaior Sorry for any offense. Reasons: 1. Philosophical terms are more restricted than English; an Anglophone may not know philosophy well to answer this question. 2) I ask about philosophical terms that might have been influenced by and derived from different languages, not just English.
    – NNOX Apps
    Dec 25 '15 at 2:05
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    but you ask "where can you learn the etymology ..." which would make your primary interest linguistic (i.e. English or French or linguistics more generally) rather than philosophical where for us these terms are tools.
    – virmaior
    Dec 25 '15 at 2:11
  • @virmaior Yes, thanks, but only a philosopher can explain these semantic changes towards philosophy? A linguist cannot, unless this linguist is also a philosopher?
    – NNOX Apps
    Dec 25 '15 at 2:12
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    Answer the question about the specific examples you want to know about in my main answer. But notice that the terms you've asked about are really carefully defined technical terms. Often times technical terms don't have really good motivation beyond "we need a name for this thing and this sounds good." For such terms, you may have to go to historians of the disciplines the terms are used in. For more general, nontechnical vocabulary, I think a dictionary is best.
    – user5172
    Dec 25 '15 at 2:49

The general place to look for etymological resources

One great resource is the Oxford English Dictionary, which is the most complete dictionary of the English language. The entries are all historically sourced, and one can observe the development of words over time that way.

Another useful resource to get older meanings of contemporary English words is Samuel Johnson's Dictionary, which was the first dictionary of English, compiled in the 18th century.

Specifically regarding the terms for the square of opposition

Every proposition in Aristotelian logic has a quantity and a quality. The quantities are affirmative and negative and the qualities are universal and particular.

  • Universal Affirmative (A): "All trees are plants."
  • Particular Affirmative (I): "Some tree is a plant."
  • Universal Negative (E): "No dog is a plant."
  • Particular Negative (O): "Some dogs are non-plans."

The letter names, A, E, I, O, are a mnemonic to help Latin-speaking school boys remember which kind of proposition is which. (The letters are taken from affirmo and nego, which mean "I affirm" and "I deny" respectively.)

Picture the propositions arranged as a square:

A - E

| / \ |

I ? O

Aristotelian logic is about the relationships among these four different kinds of propositions.

Here's one such rule. Subalternation: If you know a universal proposition (A or E) is true, then you also know that the proposition below it on the chart is true. So if "All trees are plants" is true, then it is also true that "Some tree is a plant." (Note, this is the biggest difference between Aristotle and modern logic. Modern logicians don't like that inference.) The rule is so-named, because you are inferring the one proposition from 'the other' (Latin "alter") and because the particular propositions are literally below (L. "sub") the universal propositions on the chart.

The name "subcontraries" is similar. A propositions and E propositions are contraries in that relation has logical implications. So the propositions below those propositions should be related too, and we should investigate the properties of that relation. So the medieval logicians just called that relationship subcontrariety because it was the version of contrariety for the propositions below.

  • Thanks, but as I wrote in my OP, the OED (which I tried) does not answer my question for philosophy.
    – NNOX Apps
    Dec 25 '15 at 2:13
  • Expanded the answer to address your specific examples.
    – user5172
    Dec 25 '15 at 2:44
  • +1. Thank you. 1. May I ask if you studied Latin? Because 2. I wonder whether you inferred these etymologies yourself? How I wish to do the same. 3. Will you please explain more what you mean by 'in that relation has logical implications' in your last paragraph? I know that A is the contrary of E; because 'all' and 'no' are the opposing universal quantifiers.
    – NNOX Apps
    Dec 25 '15 at 21:11
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    I do know Latin, because I specialize in medieval philosophy. But in this case, it's very much Medieval Latin. One could know Cicero quite well, and have a hard time guessing at the meaning of such terms. I mean that the spatial relations of the diagram indicate the logical relations between the proportions. The SEP article on the Square of opposition is a good resource to learn more.
    – user5172
    Dec 25 '15 at 21:27
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