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Essay Eight, Verbs to Describe Action and Reaction
Much of life is taken up with discerning, describing and dealing with people’s reactions to you. If you ask them to do something for you, they might indeed do so, but in many instances they hesitate. This chapter will give you some words to describe that hesitation. People might demur or balk or dissemble or dither or blether. It may be that they react this way because you have discomfited or confounded or nonplussed or addled or unnerved or dumbfounded them. Sometimes, in order to get in their good graces, you need to succor or importune them; often it seems as if you are toadying them. We will explore all of these words, and related words, in this chapter. As a bonus, however, let’s begin with the story of a word with which you are certainly familiar—the verb thrill.
I just received an email from a friend today who was recently given an award. In his acceptance speech, he said he was “thrilled” to receive an award that had also gone to such Oregon luminaries as Sen. Mark Hatfield and Gov. Barbara Roberts. There can’t be any easier word in English, I thought. Thrill means to be excite or please to a high degree.
I decided to do a bit more research on thrill and discovered that its original meaning, going back to 1300, was to “pierce, bore, penetrate.” But the OED hints that thrill was derived from the earlier verb to thirl, which means the same thing. A thirl, the noun, was a hole or aperture. An early use of thrill was in 1330 describing the crucifixion of Christ (spelling modernized): “a sharp lance thrilled Jesus’ side.” In 1530 a writer could say: “I thrill, I pierce or bore through a thing..This term is old and now little used.” But then the term began to evolve. Thrill began to focus on the piercing the heart or soul with a sound or emotion. Spenser, in the Fairie Queen (1590) wrote: “With piercing point/ of pity dear his heart was thrilled sore.” But you have to leave it to Shakespeare, writing a little after this, to develop some of the emotional contours of the word. From Romeo & Juliet (1592; IV.3.15):
“I have a faint cold fear thrills through my veins"
Or, from King Lear (IV,2.73):
“A Servant that he bred, thrill’d with remorse
Oppos’d against the act"
In both of these cases, thrill means to produce an emotion or to move with sudden emotion, either a positive or negative emotion. But we can see the evolution of the word right before our eyes. It originated in a visual image—a hole—and developed into the drilling or boring into the hole and then further into the emotion attendant upon being “drilled.” To be thrilled to receive an award, then, literally means to feel that one has been drilled through and through with the intensity of the event.
I wanted to take this little word journey to illustrate two things about many English verbs. First, many verbs owe their origin to common objects in medieval English life. Because of this it is easy to go from the object to the verb to the contemporary meaning. Our vocabulary is enriched when we do it. Second, we see that the meaning we use today for a word is often only one of several good ones that the word has assumed over the years. Realizing this encourages us to see the flexibility and possibilities for invention and development of the language in our day. We might sometimes return to archaic uses; sometimes we invent new words or new (mostly figurative) meanings of words. If we do the latter, we will be imitating Shakespeare, perhaps the most skilled inventor of new terms and new meanings for old terms in English.
Demur, Balk, Dissemble, Dither, Blither
You ask someone to do something. They hesitate. A good word to describe what they have done is demur. The word is derived ultimately from the Latin morare, which means “to delay.” For example, a moratorium is a delay or postponement of something. But law picked up the verb in the Middle Ages and made it into a noun (demurrer) to describe a document or pleading which admits, for the moment, the facts as stated in the opponent’s pleading, but denies that the opponent is entitled to legal relief. As was said in 1864, “A demurrer has been happily explained to be the equivalent to the remark, ‘Well, what of that?’” The verb demur then, in law, meant to confess or agree, in the language of the legal historian Edward Coke (1628), to “all such matters of fact as are well and sufficiently pleaded.” Later in the seventeenth century our contemporary meaning emerged: to “make scruples or difficulties; to raise objection, take exception to.” (1) We see that it is a stronger word than merely “to hesitate.” It suggests actively raising objections to someone. We tend to think that it only means to hesitate because of its seeming relationship with “murmur.” If you murmur, you mildly object or mumble, grumble or mutter. But demur isn’t at all related to this. It is a stronger word.
(1) OED, s.v., Def. 4.
If you balk at something, you refuse to go ahead; you hesitate, or refuse to go on. While demur emphasizes the objections you raise, balk indicates your decision to stop in your tracks. Neither of these suggests an ultimate rejection of a person or proposal; they are what you might call two different ways of expressing interim disapproval. The word balk is an incredibly rich one in English, but if we realize that the noun balk originally meant a gap in plowed ground or the ridge that was created by the plow missing some sections of ground, we are well on our way to understand it. The verb balk built upon the “ridge” definition. When you come to a “ridge,” it is the same as coming to an obstacle, and you have to make a decision on how to proceed. Since oxen or horses were the animals who created the balks in the first place, one of the first uses of the verb was to express a horse’s stopping short at an obstacle. Synonyms are to “jib” or “leap” or “shy.” (2) You have to be very astute to judge whether it is better in any particular instance to demur to or balk at or acquiesce in or embrace a proposal that is placed before you. But if you know the words, you certainly are better able to sort out the possibilities.
(2) OED, s.v., Def. 3a. Jib and shy are both great one-syllable verbs. The former originated in sailing and meant "to pull a sail or yard round from one side of the vessel to the other." But a secondary meaning developed in the nineteenth century having to do with horses: "to stop and refuse to go on; to move restively backwards and sideways instead of going on; to balk stubbornly." Jib developed a figurative meaning to describe a refusal to proceed or advance. From 1845: "Many Whigs, however, will jib, from fear of their constituents." I think the word has possibilities today. To shy means, with respect to horses, "to shrink or start back or aside through sudden fear." The horse shies wildly at something (a noise, a fearful sight, etc.). People can also shy or shy away from things.
If you dissemble, however, you are concealing your real feelings about something. While the terms just described are honorable ways to address a situation, to dissemble suggests altering or disguising a reaction so as to conceal, or deceive, or mislead as to your true reaction. To dissemble means to “give a false or feigned semblance to; to cloak or disguise by a feigned appearance.” (3) Dissemble was probably derived from the obsolete verb dissimule, and in the latter we see the words “dis” and “similar.” Thus, the word from which dissemble arose emphasizes something that does the opposite of (“dis”) what is the actual likeness (we have the word “similitude”) of something. Recently the New York Times ran a piece that talked about the “don’t ask, don’t tell” military policy regarding homosexuality. The story argues that this plan both made homosexuals dissemble (i.e., have to feign or mislead, by silence, regarding the truth of something) and provide a moral quandary for commanders. (4)
(3) OED, s.v., Def. 1.
(4) "The Damage of Don't Ask, Don't Tell," New York Times, October 4, 2009, p. 7.
The most memorable literary use of dissemble is in the final lines of Edgar Allen Poe’s short story-- “The Telltale Heart.” You might recall in the story how the seemingly perfectly committed crime, motivated by nothing other than spite, unraveled as the murderer was questioned in the very spot where the dead body was buried. The murderer’s head started to hurt; he was overcome by weakness. The beating of the dead man’s heart overwhelmed him. Finally, he could take it no more. He shouted out at the investigators (5):
“’Villains!’ I shrieked, ‘dissemble no more! I admit the deed!”
(5) Text is here:
He was imagining that the investigators were feigning ignorance about the crime; that they really knew where the body was buried, and were just “forcing” the narrator to admit the crime. Enough of this dissembling, this fakery!
Someone can also dither when you expect a decision to be made. Originally dither meant to “tremble, quake, quiver, thrill(!).” It was only in the 20th century that dither took on its contemporary meaning of “to vacillate, to act indecisively, to waver between opinions or courses of action.” (6) From 1908: “The one thing that examiners will not thole is a body that dithers.” By the way, the verb thole is a very old Scottish term for endure, suffer or bear. If you are dithered, you are confused or perplexed. The health care debate in Washington DC faced some delays in the Summer of 2009. One columnist wrote: “Yet the Democrats dither (i.e., vacillate, act indecisively) in an attempt to get 60 votes in the Senate.” In speaking about Citigroup’s uncertain path in 2008-2009, a journalist wrote, “Mr. Pandit has made several missteps. He has a tendency to dither and he took too long to recognize. . .” (7)
(6) OED, s.v., Def. 1.
(7) "Citigroup's Chief Deserves More Patience," New York Times, June 19, 2009, B2.
While on dither, I couldn’t resist spending a moment on blither, if for no other reason than that the term “blithering idiot” has made a strong showing in our culture in the past several years. In a 1982 column, the late wordsmith William Safire noted some word-combinations that were just coming into their own in American speech. They included, “shirk responsibility,” “shorn locks,” “blithering idiot,” “caught red-handed,” “gird the loins” and “brazen hussy.” (8) Later he added phrases like “key aide” and “unmitigated gall.”
(8) "On Language," New York Times, June 6, 1982, Section 6.
Blither is a variant of blether and means “to talk nonsense.” The first usage is in 1868: “What did the imp come blitherin’ and botherin’ here for? In a statement using the, at that time, disparaging word babu, a 1921 piece could write: “The inevitable pasty-faced babu waddled up, blithering about the delay.” To blether is also to blather and means “to talk nonsense loquaciously.” Thus, there is something in the “bl…th” combination in English that gives the impression of nonsensical speech. If you blither, you blather, blether and babble. Quite a potent quartet of words.
It May Be That They Are. . .
Words spoken or requests made can cause hesitation in the one asked to respond. S/he may hesitate because s/he is discomfited, confounded, dumbfounded, nonplussed, addled, unnerved, to name a few appropriate reactions. Let’s look at each of the verb forms briefly.
Make sure not to confuse discomfit with discomfort. The mistake is made all the time by people who shouldn’t make it. For example, Mark Oppenheimer, director of the Yale Journalism Initiative and an editor of the New Haven Review, wrote the following in the New York Times in 2008 about a professor at Wesleyan University in Middletown, CT. She (Prof. Anna Bean),
“says she believes that part of her job is to discomfit students, to rid them of easy assumptions (for example, that being white, as she is, is the norm while everyone else is a minority). . .” (9)
(9) "Judgment Day, " New York Times, September 21, 2008, p. 28.
I hope, in fact, that her job is not to discomfit students because, as the OED tells us, discomfit means to “undo in battle; defeat or overthrow completely; beat, rout.” (10) A “gentler” definition is to “throw into perplexity, confusion; to cast down utterly.” Maybe that is what they meant, though it still seems a little strong for most teachers.
(10) OED, s.v., Def. 1.
A synonym for discomfit is confound, which originally meant “to defeat utterly, discomfit, bring to ruin, destroy, overthrow, rout.” The root meaning of the term is helpful to understand. It suggests to mix (fundere) something with (con) something else. Thus, other definitions of confound include to confuse, mix, or throw into confusion of mind or feelings. Darwin, in his Origin of Species, could say, “This difficulty for a long time quite confounded me.” One can confound the Cincinnati Reds uniforms with those of the Philadelphia Phillies. The word in its original meaning was used most powerfully in the King James translation of the Bible, where it appears more than 60 times. From II Kings 19:26, “Therefore their inhabitants were of small power, they were dismayed and confounded” (i.e., overthrown). But the meaning of confound as confuse (11) is evident in the biblical story of the Tower of Babel: “Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech” (Genesis 11:7).
(11) The word confuse is simply derived from the fourth principal part of the Latin verb confundo--confusus.
The gentler meaning of confound, relating to confusion, brings us into the realm of dumbfound and flabbergast. Darwin, whom we associate with the clearest and most powerful theory of the origin of humanity in modern times, must have spent a lot of his life confused, because he wrote in 1861: “I cannot wriggle out of it; I am dumbfounded.” Perhaps that is the secret of great discovery—to readily admit your confusion.
Another synonym of confuse in this sense is nonplus. I remember first running into the word in about third grade when I was reading a Hardy Boys story. Chet, the boy’s “fat friend,” as he was often called, was nonplussed at something. (12) Well, nonplus is a very useful term to express perplexity or confusion. A good way to remember nonplus is to take apart its two syllables. They are Latin for “not” and “more.” A person who is in a nonplus cannot go on any more. Such a person is at a standstill because of perplexity and puzzlement. When Dorothy and Toto (Wizard of Oz) came to a fork in the road, where the Yellow Brick Road went both ways, they didn’t know which way to go. You could say they were confused, but if you say they were nonplussed, you would even be more accurate. They came to a standstill. They could not (non) go more (plus). From the nineteenth century: “He was there gravelled, plunged, or at a Non-plus; he knew not what to make of or what to say.” Sentences like these encourage us to go more deeply into the language, to limn the way that gravel and plunge can be used. But let’s resist the temptation for now (though you might choose to fall to it!). (13)
(12) A quick Google search of the Hardy Boys books reveals that Chet was nonplussed in Footprints Under the Window, volume 12 of the original series.
(13) Though I can't resist telling you that the verb to gravel originally meant "to cover with gravel" and then "to bury with gravel" and then "to cause to stick in gravel or sand" and then "to nonplus, come to a standstill." It you take time with your imagination as well as with the words themselves, language opens to you in powerful ways. See the illustrations in the Century Dictionary, s.v.
Finally, let’s say a word about unnerve and addle. Unnerve is derived from the German entnerven, and the “ent” prefix in German means to “take away.” Thus, originally unnerve meant “to destroy the strength of” (to take away the nerves) or to render physically weak. But, within a century of its first use, the word took on a figurative meaning, present today, to “deprive of firmness or courage; to render incapable of acting with ordinary firmness or energy.” (14) Fearful things can unnerve us. When the stock market fell in 2008, the report was that “two lesser-known economic barometers seemed to unnerve investors.”
(14) OED, s.v., Def 2.
If you are addled, however, you are muddled, scrambled, or confused. But unlike confound or nonplus, addle comes from a far different experience of life. Addle, the noun, is a very old word and refers to “stinking urine, or other liquid filth; mire.” (15) It took about 500 years for the noun to turn into a verb, and by that time it referred to the quality of the addle—it made water unclear, turgid, muddled. Thus, the verb addle quickly took on a figurative meaning of muddling or confusing. A July 30, 2008 online report mentioned that a new meta-study concluded that hormone deprivation therapy, a commonly used treatment for prostate cancer, can “addle the brain,” leading to cognitive deficits in a number of areas. (16) No further examples of the use of the word are necessary; just think of stinking urine, and you have all you need.
(15) OED, s.v., Def. 1.
Conclusion—On Succor, Importune, Toady
Much more could be said about verbs that help you act and react, but let’s conclude with mention of three: succor, importune, and toady. If you succor someone, you help him or her. The word has an archaic ring to it, and its most familiar appearance in English is the translation of Hebrews 2:18, which has Christ “succoring” people in need. But the word need not have a theological meaning to be helpful.
You might also importune someone, which means that you, in a bothersome or irksome way, continually ply someone with requests or petitions. From Macaulay’s classic History of England (1849): “Some officers. . .after vainly importuning the government during many years, had died for want of a morsel of bread.” Importuning implies a urgent, persistent, and often offensively bothersome asking for help. It is a great word to know.
If you toady someone, you play the flatterer. You pay deference to a person from interested motives. You appear to be a servile dependant of a person, but you are only doing so to advance your own ambitions. The word is derived from that low animal, which was almost universally hated in the Middle Ages. As the OED says, the toad was a “type of anything hateful and loathsome.” (17) Thus, if you want to accuse someone of the most vile form of flattery, tell them that they are toadying someone.
(17) OED., s.v. (toad), Def. 1b
These many verbs, if well-considered, will give you lots of options in learning how to describe people and situations. But we have to dress those verbs with appropriate garb so they shine brightly. Nouns help us do that. Let’s turn to about 100 of them now.