Posted on December 22, 2019 by sydneymandt
I’m fascinated by abstract words and how they can sometimes be linked to concrete terms.
One of my go-to examples of this is the word “worry”. We often connect worrying to mental anxiety – thinking about possible negative outcomes of a situation and experiencing the distress that imagining entails.
But worry also has a more physically evident definition that I don’t hear used as often, as mentioned in Webster’s online dictionary:
a: to harass by tearing, biting, or snapping especially at the throat
b: to shake or pull at with the teeth
c: to touch or disturb something repeatedly
d: to change the position of or adjust by repeated pushing or hauling
When I was a child, I heard someone describe “worry beads” and how people would use them to count or just touch during prayers. People would “worry the beads”.
I didn’t understand this phrase. Beads are inanimate objects. How could they be worried about something? And if beads could be worried, why does touching them do it? Is the praying person somehow transferring their worry onto the beads so that they don’t have to feel it?
Eventually I understood that in this case worry meant the physical acting of touching over and over. It has occurred to me that the word “worry” started out as a concrete verb, but at some point became a handy metaphor to describe a mental state, and thus an abstract verb.
So now I am on the lookout for abstract words that possibly began as concrete ones.
One example is the word “sin”. The Greek word for sin is “hamartia”, which is an archery term that means “to miss the mark”. I grew up thinking that sinning is synonomous with doing evil. If one is a sinner, it means that they deliberately act against God’s wishes. Maybe if I had grown up with a different religious background I would have understood that not all sin has intentionality behind it, but as a child I picked up on the distinct aura of blame around the word.
But when I was in my early 20’s, someone told me the “miss the mark” definition, and it totally changed my perception. Immediately I could see that sinners were not necessarily trying to go against God’s will. As a matter of fact, they were likely striving to hit their target, which is to please God and follow His plan. They aim, shoot, and miss. Because hitting a mark is a skill that takes practice. And since no one is perfect, we are all sinners, but that doesn’t mean we’re doomed. It just means we have to keep trying.
Instead of a statement of hopelessness, I started to see the word “sin” as a commendation of effort. You will never be perfect, but you have a lifetime to keep practicing. This new perspective turns an intransitive “just-the-way-it-is” spiritual situation into a transitive “just-do-it” athletic event.
This brings me to the word of the hour: “behoove”.
It’s an old word, but it still gets used occasionally. President Obama used the word publicly, saying, “It behooves me to be brief.” The dictionary definition is “to be necessary, fit, or proper”. This seems to be a transitive verb, which has a direct object being acted upon, and also someone or something doing the action. In this case, President Obama is the direct object being acted on by “it”, where “it” is the situation in which President Obama finds himself.
When I woke up this morning, I thought of the “hoof” in behoove. Why, I do not know, but I considered the possibility that “behoove” started as “behoof” and meant being given a hoof, or being “hooved”. You could say when God created horses, He “behooved” them so that they could run, walk, and generally move from one place to another with utility and efficiency.
I am intrigued by that “be” in front of the word. I think of “bedazzled”, which means “decorated with sparkly things.
How many other verbs can I think of that start with “be” as a indicator of being “placed upon” or “bestowed with”? There’s “bestow” in that last sentence, to start with. “Stow” means to store carefully in a particular place. So if a word has been bestowed with a certain meaning, the meaning has been stored and neatly packed into that word.
Other “be-” words include: Bespeckle. Bedeck. Beknight. Befuddle. Bewilder. Bewitch. Beleaguer. Berate. I have heard all of those words used by actual speakers, but there may have been many more such words in the past, as suggested by the madeup-sounding but Scrabble-legitimate words “beglamored”, and “besprinkled”. Today we would be more likely to use the words “glamorized” and “sprinkled” to mean the same things.
All of the previous leads up to my thinking about “behooved”. Is this ever an intransitive verb? “I am behooved to act a certain way,” seems to be a sentence with no direct object (which is required to be called transitive) but is instead a (gerund?), an adjective (formed from a verb) describing the object “I” through the reflexive verb “am”. But in order to say that sentence, a prequel sentence is implied: “Something behooved me.”
Thinking about this word in the “concrete transforming into abstract” context, I now consider “behoove” not just as an obligation to do something, but as an acknowledgement of being given the tools to actually do it.
It “behooves me to do good in the world” becomes, “I have the tools and ability to do good” – just as behooving (behoofing) a horse gives it the tools and abilities to run through the fields playfully, to transport people and items, and to do other valuable things.
I love how a little shift in word connotation can dramatically change my outlook.