In a comment following the recent post about India, Shoreacres wrote:

I made the effort to check before posting, and as far as I can tell there’s no connection at all between “indolent” and the various “Indo-” forms you’ve posted here and in your previous post.

Still, it’s intriguing that for so many centuries, peoples of India, certain island-dwellers and the Indians of North America all have been described as “indolent”.

I would be indolent indeed if I didn’t follow up on the word indolente/indolent, in which the in- is not part of the root, as it is in India, but is the familiar negative prefix used in Latin and in so many words that Spanish and English have acquired from Latin. The Latin source was indolens, with stem indolent-, from the verb dolere ‘to feel pain’ that has become Spanish doler. It’s clear, then, that the original meaning of indolent- was ‘not causing pain, painless,’ and that’s the sense the word first had in English as well. As a medical term, indolent retains that sense and can also mean ‘slow to develop’ and ‘slow to heal,’ presumably because a tumor that develops slowly doesn’t usually cause pain.

From the idea of not causing pain came the notion of avoiding pain or suffering by taking things easy, and so indolent developed the sense ‘avoiding labor and exertion’ and then ‘inactive,’ ‘habitually idle,’ and finally ‘lazy.’ Spanish indolente has undergone the same development and shares the set of meanings present in its English counterpart.

English once used dolent to mean ‘sorrowful,’ but that’s obsolete. In contrast, the Spanish adjective doliente is alive, and its meanings include ‘feeling pain, suffering, ill.’

© 2012 Steven Schwartzman

5 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Red
    May 01, 2012 @ 10:43:25

    I will never cease to be amazed at the use of words based wholly on supposition and assumption. Those who use them feel they are flexing knowledgeable muscles the people with true verbal aptitude know are nothing more than stuffing.

    I am going to like it here.


    • Steve Schwartzman
      May 01, 2012 @ 12:14:02

      Welcome, Red. When I taught in the public schools over three decades ago, my first impulse was to correct the inflated ways in which educational bureaucrats spoke (and still speak, alas). But then it occurred to me that it was better for the bureaucrats to speak so pompously because their language was like a large sign saying “Don’t trust anyone who talks like this!”


      • Red
        May 01, 2012 @ 12:26:56

        Excellent observation! I much prefer to teach those who listen than those who speak for the exact same reason. My education spans the gamut, but it helps me understand the levels which encourage people to accept and assume…regardless of how scary I may find them.

        I hope you enjoy your time at my space as well. We delve into the many practical layers of believing words only mean one thing.


  2. shoreacres
    May 06, 2012 @ 10:42:23

    What a wonderfully complete and understandable explanation of how we got from point A to point B with these words.

    However, I’d be remiss if I didn’t point out there’s at least one place in the world where indolence as laid-backness (if not laziness) and as a pain-free state are perfectly joined. You may even have been there – Luckenbach, of course! Out in Luckenbach, Texas, “ain’t nobody feelin’ no pain”!


  3. Steve Schwartzman
    May 06, 2012 @ 10:52:39

    An excellent rejoinder. I’d thought about mentioning the colloquial English notion of not feeling any pain, but it’s better that you’ve added it via a song. And yes, I have been to Luckenbach, but only once, and maybe 15 years ago.


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©2011–2018 Steven Schwartzman

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