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Old notes on etymology

A dictionary

The profundity of language.— You can gain great insight into the human condition, into the nature of the mind, by studying the evolution of words. For example, what’s the significance of the fact that words like illusion, elude, allude, and delude are variations on the Latin word for ‘play’? Johan Huizinga discusses this in Homo Ludens....

Or think of the word ‘interest.’ As Hannah Arendt says, “something is of interest to people [insofar as] it inter-est, it is between them.” It draws them together. “Philosophy is inter-esting.”

Arendt again: the word ‘sensible’ means, among other things, “capable of receiving sensory impressions,” a definition that leads to “receptive to external influences” (cf. ‘sensitive’), which leads to “having, containing, or indicative of good sense or reason.” In The World As Will and Representation, Schopenhauer notes that the connection between sensation and intelligence revealed by this etymology is significant. A stupid person, he says, rarely has discriminating senses, so that, for example, loud noises don’t bother him. In other words, the fact that he isn’t sensible (reasonable, intelligent)—or, indeed, emotionally sensitive—is related to his not being sensible (sensitive to external stimuli). Fascinating insights embedded in language.

To understand: to stand under. That’s the etymology in a nutshell. ‘Finally, after years of studying it, I stand under (e.g.) Marxism!’ It’s also interesting that “the ‘understander,’ in circus slang, is the one whose shoulders carry the full weight of the acrobatic team.” To understand: to bear the weight of… I used to stand outside Marxism; now I stand under it. I’m holding it up; it presses down on me. (?)[1] The original concept of understanding makes reference to one’s location, to a virtually physical (or at least behavioral) fact rather than a mental one. Think also of German: verstehen = stand before. (Heidegger wasn’t just being a stupid cultural nationalist when he said that German is the most philosophical of languages.)

But ‘That joke was above me’ = ‘I didn’t understand it.’ Maybe ‘above’ here means far above, so that I am not in direct contact with it, not directly under it or directly before it, not in its presence. ‘General relativity is beyond me. I don’t stand under it; it’s beyond me.’

Perceive: percipere: per-capere, to take thoroughly. So, to perceive is to thoroughly take something in, which has philosophical implications. (‘Take’ is active. So perception is active, not passive. And the ‘thoroughly’ part suggests that there is a difference between perception and sensation, in that the latter is less thoroughly conscious than the former.)

Conceive: com-capere, to take with, to take in and hold (be together with). The pregnancy meaning was the original one; the word was extended to mean “to take into the mind” around 1340.

Behave: be-have. Have being. To behave in a certain way is to have being in a certain way, to have (or hold) oneself in a certain way. “Behave!” Have being! Have a determinate being! Stop acting crazily, “pull your self together,” give being to your self!

Endure: indurare (harden against), in-durare (harden in (oneself, one’s heart)). To endure something, you have to become hard in your self.

Enthusiasm: entheos, be inspired: en-theos, i.e., a god in. A god is breathing into you, so to speak.

Adjective: ad-jacere, to throw to. You “throw” an adjective to its object. Again, this reinforces the model of humans as essentially active beings, not passive recipients of external data.

Such words as ‘lovely’ are wonderful: “She is love-ly. She is beauty-full, wonder-full. She full-fills me.”

Despair: de-sperare (to hope). As Kierkegaard says, to despair is to not believe in possibility any longer, to think that alternatives have become impossible. It is to lose faith in one’s freedom (i.e., the reality of possibilities)—to treat oneself as belonging to the realm of necessity, the realm of thinghood, of remaining stationary in this state forever. “A possibility and the despairer breathes again,” writes Kierkegaard, “he revives; for without possibility it is as though a person cannot draw a breath.” In other words, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things…,” to quote The Shawshank Redemption. Hope, or freedom, the consciousness of possibility.

The “spiritual” meanings of a lot of words are merely metaphorical extensions of the original “bodily” meanings. For example: depress, repress, suppress, impress. Im-press: press in. Sub-press: press under. De-press: press down. Re-press: press back, press again. (Something presses in one direction, you press back to keep it in check. From reprimere, to check.) This fact is philosophically and psychologically pithy.


Among the profoundest concepts is that of repetition. It fascinates me, and many other thinkers. Freud made productive use of it—it led to his theory of the death instinct; Nietzsche was dazzled by it; Aristotle and the ancient Stoics (and other cultures) believed in eternal repetition; Hegel recognized the importance to spiritual development of a sort of transformed repetition; an entire philosophy of history is premised on it; Kierkegaard wrote a book called Repetition. Throughout the cosmos, in fact, repetition is woven. Biologically it is of the utmost importance, from the infant’s rhythms to the very workings of DNA and RNA. Music is based on repetition, not only rhythmically but melodically and harmonically. –The concept is both the most commonplace and the most profound of all concepts.

Think of this: “Be constant in thy love.” (From my Book of Joe.) That means be faithful in your love. Con-stant: stand with, stand firm (constare). Stand firm in your love, stand with your loved one. But how does that manifest itself? Through repetition. You constantly, as it were, in every moment repeat the act of loving. (The connection between the two meanings of ‘constant.’)

Incidentally: how do you acquire the ability to stand firm (constare)? By standing with (constare). You get strength from your with-ness.

[1] Contrary to these suggestions, one website states that the Old English sense of ‘under’ was closer to ‘between, among’ than ‘beneath.’ Thus, to understand is to stand in the midst of, or to be close to.


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