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Worries about words.

Derivations of a word are often as intriguing as the sorts of explanations psychologists come up with for human behavior. Etymology and psychology, indeed, have much in common -- so much so that maybe we should think of language in the way we think of personality.

Explanations of word origins make connections that we may not have noticed before, and provide the same jolt of excited recognition that characterizes a first encounter with a relative of someone we know well. The physical or behavioral likeness is there, and inevitably and necessarily becomes part of the context in which we know that person. Understanding someone's psychology, getting further inside a personality, broadens one's understanding of that individual in the way that an understanding of etymology heightens awareness of the dynamic and slippery nature of language.

Etymology and psychology offer us more than just interesting parallels, however -- the meaning and metaphor of each is twisted into and around the other. Take, for example, an issue with which psychology is very concerned: worry. According to the inimitable 19th century Scottish etymologist and polymath, the Reverend Walter Skeat (Litt. D., D.C.L., LL.D., Ph.D. and F.B.A.), worry originally meant "to seize by the throat or strangle, as when a dog worries a rat or sheep." Skeat weaves his eccentric, learned way back from worry through the Middle English worowen, wirier, wyrwyn and worowen ("explained by `strangulo, suffoco'"), to the Dutch worgen, "to strangle," the Low German worgerl, the German worgen and the Old High German wurgan, "to strangle, suffocate, choke." (All of those who have ever worried a great deal about anything will confirm that worry is beastly and does strangle, suffocate and choke.)

No less an authority than the Oxford English Dictionary confirms this, defining an early sense of worry as "A dog's action of biting and shaking an animal so as to injure it, spec. a hound's worrying of its quarry." The OED traces worry from the obscure Middle English sense of "choke (a person or animal) on or with a mouthful of food," through Skeat's sense of a dog or wolf seizing by the throat and shaking to kill or injure, to the sense of "harass, harry, attack repeatedly or persistently." This in turn becomes to "irritate or distress by inconsiderate or demanding behavior." As Adam Phillips, professional psychiatrist, amateur etymologist, and author of On Tickling, Kissing and Being Bored puts it:

Two things are immediately striking in all of this. First there is the

original violence of the term, the way it signifies the vicious but

successful outcome of pursuing an object of desire. This sense of

brutal foreplay is picked up in Dryden's wonderful lines in All for

Love: "And then he grew familiar with her hand/Squeezed it,

and worry'd it with ravenous kisses." Worrying, then is devouring,

a peculiarly intense, ravenous form of eating. In other words, at a

certain point in

history worrying became something that people could do to


But this is just the beginning. Unravel any one behavior pattern, any one word, and it's bound to lead in all sorts of interesting directions, to make all sorts of unexpected (but, in hindsight, logical) connections. Skeat, at the end of his entry on won y, sends us off to have a look at wring, which, he tells us, is from the Anglo-Saxon wringan, "to press, compress, strain." Suspiciously close to the worgen and wurgen sorts of words from which worry has appeared, and, indeed, Skeat somehow manages to keep his tone academic and serious as he traces them all back to the "Old Teutonic type *wreng-an, pt. t. *wrang, pp. *wrunganoz; a nasalised form from a base *wreg = *werg, for which see Worry. And cf. Wriggle." Glorious stuff. Worry causes one to wring one's hands, and even to want to wriggle away. On we go, discovering that wriggle, allied to the Middle English wrikken, "to twist to and fro" is also related to the Dutch wriggelen, to wriggle, which itself is a frequentative (whatever that is) of wrikken, "to move or stir to and fro." Alfred J. Prufrock, the young T.S. Eliot's emblem for the contemporary psychological condition, finds himself "pinned and wriggling" and is vend worried.

Worrying can be neurotic, perverse, or simply wrong, which, Skeat paints out, comes from the Teutonic *wrant, "to wring, twist." The late Anglo-Saxon sense of wrong is "properly an adjective signifying `a wrong thing, a thing perverted or wrung aside.' "But wringing and twisting can also be traced back to the Icelandic ri[delta]a and the Danish vride, which are predecessors of our modern day writhe (to twist to and fro), wreathe (a twisted band, a bandage), and, most interestingly, wrath, which comes from the Middle English wroth, and the Anglo-Saxon wrod, "to writhe, so that the original sense was twisted or perverted in one's temper."

Psychology's metaphors for the personality are rooted in the hidden origins of the words it uses. People who are worried feel perversely choked and strangled by their worries, gnawed at by a beast inside of them. They wring their hands, writhe and wriggle uncomfortably, and direct wrath at themselves for behaving wrongly.

Psychology prefers the term anxiety to worry, and anger to wrath. No worries, keep calm -- it turns out that the roots of anxious are the Latin angere, "to choke, strangle" and the Greek [One unconvertible Greek character] "to strangle." Traces of anger, you won't be surprised to discover, can be found in the Latin angora, "strangling, bodily torture; also mental anguish." Anguish, felt acutely by those who are anxious, worried and angry, is a close relative. Go back a bit further and you get to the "Sanskrit amhas, `pain,' all from ANGH, to choke, oppress."

What are we to make of this? When are the twists and turns from English to Icelandic to Anglo-Saxon to Latin to Sanskrit too sharp to make? Can we trust psychology's metaphorical paring away of defenses, anxieties, and neuroses? Does protracted analysis of past origins actually help us in the present context? It's all hopelessly confusing.

Psychology peers into personality and can only express in deeply metaphorical language what it thinks it finds. No literal description is available to describe the internal dynamics of the psyche; the whole notion of personality itself is necessarily a very extended metaphor. Chipping away at anxieties and defenses in order to get at meanings and origins that have been perverted and distorted is a very abstract endeavor. A person's current personality has a meaning m its present context, which psychology claims (and we seem to accept), has evolved from a prior context (heredity, family environment, relationships). But that prior context only begs the question of deeper, more distant ancestral origins, which, at some point, become obscure and unavailable, while nonetheless undeniably having existed. The whole process relies upon a faith in the basic construct -- the metaphor of personality -- and therefore cannot be proved.

Etymology, too, attempts to work its way back through a linguistic evolution that can be hypothesized but not proved. If language is personality, words can be different elements of that personality, and evolve much as character traits do in a person, in response to the time and context in which they exist. Different languages are ancestral gene pools, and have created words, that will, in time, themselves give birth to new words and languages, the meaning and neurotic tendencies of which we cannot predict.

Ultimately, it is our psyches that have produced language. AS philosophers and psychologists alike often agree, however, without language there would be no psyche. Psychology and etymology may be distinct, but within each are traces of the other that may point to a single origin, slightly too far back to see clearly, and certainly impossible to seize by the throat and worry about.

Toby Lester is a staff editor with The Atlantic Monthly magazine.
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Title Annotation:etymology
Author:Lester, Toby
Publication:ETC.: A Review of General Semantics
Date:Dec 22, 1995
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