A classic back-formation!
This was from an essay concerning possible sex discrimination in the firefighter’s test in Connecticut. The sentence that preceded the above is “Before women ever thought about being a policeman or a firefighter, there were the men.”
So this appearance of feriority may be the result of simply being there first. And, in the case of this student’s statement, the men certainly were there: there were the men. Actually she seems to imply that men existed before women (and I suppose if you buy Genesis she is right, briefly anyway, although Genesis doesn’t reveal any desire on Eve’s part to fight fires).
Back-formation is the creation of a new word by removing what looks like a prefix or suffix to get back to the presumed root word. But “ferior” is not a root word. It is a word in Latin, apparently, although “church,” not classical, Latin; it means to rest from labor or observe a holiday, according to several Latin-translation sites (first-person singular present passive indicative of feriō, adds Wiktionary).
A quick Google yields the sobering fact, though, that my student is not alone. Wiktionary, a good place to look for slang, offers this:
Urban Dictionary defines it as “of surpassing excellence, the opposite of inferior,” and offers T-shirts and mugs reading “Ferior!”
I’m supplying that link so you can see I’m not kidding, not so you can order something:
I have to admit I like the greeting card with the teacher writing “Ferior” on the board, though!
If men are the ferior, then is Mohammed Ali the most ferior? And considering that my student wrote her statement more than twenty years ago, might I speculate that she is the inventor of this term, with others who heard her thinking “Wow, is THAT the oppposite of ‘inferior’? Cool!”
I can see her now, working on her essay, wondering why women are always treated as men’s inferiors. Who do those men think they are, anyway, or what do they think they are? They think they are the opposite of inferior! “Superior” does not leap to her mind, as it obviously should; instead, she figures out her terminology by imitation of what seems to be a pretty reliable pattern (possible, impossible; finite, infinite; polite, impolite; tolerable, intolerable…). Makes sense, if you never studied Latin and therefore never learned that supra means “above” and infra means “below.” What she mistook for a prefix, in-, is actually part of the root word.
As in the case of men’s seeming feriority, appearances can be deceiving.