Understanding and superstition

I woke up in the middle of the night last night, and as I lay there unable to fall back to sleep, I thought not about lying but about standing, or more specifically understanding. If I were learning English as a second language, I’d most likely be puzzled by the word understand. (If native English speakers aren’t usually puzzled, it’s only because they grew up with this strange compound and rarely stop to think about it.) Although the parts under and stand are clear enough, how can the meanings of those two components combine to produce a word that means ‘comprehend’?

A look back shows that the Indo-European ancestor of under was the synonymous *ndher, as seen in its Latin descendant infra ‘below.’ So Indo-European doesn’t seem to help us understand understand. Coming back to Old English, we find that in addition to understandan there was the differently prefixed forstandan, literally ‘to stand before,’ which also meant ‘comprehend,’ as does the modern German cognate verstehen. So the prefix was not critical, and the concept seems to have been ‘to stand in a relationship to an occurrence, thing, matter, statement, etc.’ But that raises the question of why the relationship came to be one of comprehending.

The Germanic languages weren’t alone in the abstract way they construed a combination of a directional preposition with a descendant of the Indo-European root for ‘stand.’ Greek prefixed epi, whose many meanings included ‘upon, over, around, near,’ to a form of the verb for ‘stand’ to produce episteme, which meant ‘knowledge.’ From that we’ve formed epistemología/epistemology ‘the branch of philosophy that deals with the nature of knowledge.’

Something similar took place in Latin, which combined super ‘over, above,’ the ancestor of Spanish sobre, with a form of the verb for ‘stand’ to create superstitio, with stem superstition-. Lewis and Short’s A Latin Dictionary explained that the word meant originally ‘a standing still over or by a thing; hence, amazement, wonder, dread, esp. of the divine or supernatural.’ That dictionary’s definitions of the word as used in classical Latin were ‘excessive fear of the gods, unreasonable religious belief, superstition (different from religio, a proper, reasonable awe of the gods….)’ We’ve carried over that ‘standing above’ word as superstición/superstition, which stands well below understanding in the scale that measures human comprehension of the way things in the world really work.

Lewis and Short’s analysis of Latin superstitio may be the clue we need to understand understand. The key seems to be the standing still, because during the time we’re standing still, whether literally or metaphorically, we have the opportunity to observe the things that are near, around, in front of, under or over us, think about them, and ultimately come to understand them.

© 2011 Steven Schwartzman


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©2011–2016 Steven Schwartzman
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