word-forming element which in English is characteristic of fem. nouns and adjectives of Latin or Greek origin (such as idea, coma, mania, basilica, arena, formula, nebula). From Latin -a (plural -ae) and Greek -a, -ē (plural -ai, Latinized as -ae). The Latin suffix also became Italian -a (plural -e), Spanish -a (plural -as). It is represented in Old English by -u, -e, but even then the suffix was fading and by the time of modern English was totally lost or swallowed into silent final -e-.
It also appears in Romanic words from Latin that have been borrowed into English, such as opera, plaza, armada. It figures in scientific names coined in Modern Latin (amoeba, soda, magnolia, etc.) and is common in geographical names formed according to Latin or Greek models (Asia, Africa, America, Arabia, Florida, etc.)
In English it marks sex only in personal names (Julia, Maria, Alberta) and in a few words from Italian or Spanish where a corresponding male form also is in use (donna, senora).
nominative neuter plural ending of certain nouns and adjectives in Latin and Greek that have been adopted into English (phenomena, data, media, criteria, etc.). It also is common in biology in Modern Latin formations of class names (Mammalia, Reptilia, Crustacea).
updated on October 21, 2016