Yesterday I listened to some John Denver songs, in one of which he used the word comfort (and an Internet search shows he used the word in other songs too). The Cambridge Advanced Learner’s Dictionary defines comfort as ‘a pleasant feeling of being relaxed and free from pain’ and ‘something that makes your life easy and pleasant.’ Those are the main modern meanings of the noun, but as a verb comfort has the sense ‘to console.’ Now compare the primary definition of the verb in Noah Webster’s 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language: ‘To strengthen; to invigorate; to cheer or enliven.’ The first of those meanings, ‘to strengthen,’ is the original one, which English carried over when it borrowed the Old French verb conforter, which had come from the similar Late Latin confortare. We recognize con- as an intensifying prefix; remove it, and we have finally the root of the compound, fort-, from Latin fortis, ‘strong,’ the ancestor of Spanish fuerte. English also inherited the French version of the Latin adjective in the fort that is ‘a fortified place.’ A longer word for ‘fort’ is fortress, which has Spanish fortaleza as its counterpart for ‘un recinto fortificado.’ Spanish has turned to French for confort, which the Diccionario de la Real Academia Española explains is ‘aquello que produce bienestar y comodidades.’ Curiously, though, French picked up that sense of the word from its development in English, which of course had borrowed the original from older French.
© 2011 Steven Schwartzman