Mesmerised by the meaning of everyday words.

Posted: 5 January, 2014 in Words

Source: Indulgence by Daniel Paul Schreber; Drinking beer by Peg93; Wikimedia Commons

I’ve spent the last month hearing about, and partaking in, the annual xmas indulgence. Everyone I speak to about their xmas/new year break talks of overindulging.

But the word indulge goes above and beyond how we use it today, which is usually in relation to simply eating or drinking too much once in a while.

Indulge wasn’t used until the 16th century, two centuries after the original word, indulgence, from the Latin word indulgere, meaning “allow long enough for” or “to be complaisant”, was used. An indulgence was the name given to a remission, given by the Roman Catholic Church, when a sin was forgiven, usually without punishment. Centuries later it had come to be treated much more cavalierly than it once had, spawning the verb “indulge”, which was commonly used to mean asking for forgiveness, time or favour, such as, “If you will indulge me, I will explain everything”, or “To indulge a child may lead to him growing up spoiled”.

As sins were treated more trivially by both the church and its members, to indulge gradually came to mean being forgiven for partaking in any venial sin, which has contributed to today’s use of the word. Today, it means to undertake “unrestrained action”, something which, by definition, at one time could only be forgiven by church elders. We use it to encompass all the little acts we see as minor transgressions (if a transgression at all) that were (and still are, I guess) condemned by the church — overeating, drinking to excess, lying (“there’s no harm in indulging in a little white lie now and again”), sex, etc.

All this history from one little word.

Some other great conflicts between definition and usage I’ve recently discovered are:

  • Consent: This means more than just giving permission. It means to passively agree, even if you have a negative opinion of what you’re agreeing to; yielding to what is proposed.
  • Fantastic: I hear this every day. Someone saying they found a new job is sure to hear, “That’s fantastic!” in reply. If he was to think definitively about this response, however, it might surprise the new job holder that he was being told the thought of his getting a new job was, “from fanciful thinking; based in fantasy as opposed to reality; based on the imagination; whimsical”.
  • Terrific: Today, terrific is used to describe some great and wonderful event. Definitively it means to “inspire fear or terror”. Though most people would not describe the recent tsunamis, bush fires and other natural disasters as terrific, by definition this would be more accurate than many other terms used to describe these horrendous events.
  • Erudition: Many people use this word to mean knowledgeable but it goes beyond merely learning about a subject. An erudite is someone who has a deep and broad familiarity with his subjects by virtue of excessive reading and study. He is fully instructed in his subject by undertaking a deep contemplation of that topic. Not all scholars and academics are erudites and many will never achieve this highly admirable status.
  • Hubris: This is used commonly to mean arrogance but, again, there is so much more to it. In classical Greek tragedy it described defiance towards the Gods, which it was widely believed to be an act undertaken by someone delusional or deranged (no-one defied the Gods!) It indicates a loss of contact with reality and an overestimation of one’s capabilities, especially when the person is in a position of power, which ultimately results in the transgressor’s ruin. So much more than simple arrogance.

Looking into the etymology of words is a wonderful reminder of just how amazing language can be, and how much can be said with one word. While I’ve heard scholars claim the English language is relatively limited in being able to express many things there are still wonders to be found when I take the time to look.

And I will never stop looking.


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