Word Matters Podcast

Words That Began as Metaphors

Word Matters, Episode 73

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Usually, a word begins with a literal, concrete meaning. (Like concrete, for example.) Then, eventually, it starts being used metaphorically. (Hey again, concrete!) But with these words, that's not the case. These words began as metaphors and then went backwards. Stay tuned.

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Emily Brewster: There is a usual trajectory for words that have multiple meanings, especially if one is an abstract, meaning usually they have a concrete meaning that comes first. And then there's a metaphorical extension.

Peter Sokolowski: Sometimes we have words that are similar and it's just a coincidence. And sometimes there are words that are similar and that is a coincidence, but they also intersect anyway.

Emily Brewster: Coming up on Word Matters, a set of words with counterintuitive semantic trajectories. And the story of ferment and foment. I'm Emily Brewster and Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media. On each episode, Merriam-Webster editors Ammon Shea, Peter Sokolowski, and I, explore some aspect of the English language from the dictionary's vantage point.

We are well acquainted with the metaphorical extensions of our words. The warmth we experience physically on a sunny day, of course preceded the warmth of a comfortable friendship. But there are some words that went in the opposite direction semantically. Words with abstract meanings that predate the concrete meanings one might assume came first. I'll lay them out for you.

We often talk about how words shift in meaning, and there is a usual trajectory for words that have multiple meanings, especially if one is an abstract, meaning usually they have a concrete meaning that comes first. And then there's a metaphorical extension. So we use the word star metaphorically, but it began the astronomical entities, the thing that started, right. We start with the thing in the sky, then we get to a brilliant performer. That's the usual way that semantic development happens with a word, but there are a number of words that buck this trend and I've been collecting them for a long time. I don't have a very big list, but I have some. In the course of lexicography where often looking at what the earliest meaning of a word is. And so for example, I was looking at the entry for the word sloth, and I had assumed that the famously slow moving arboreal mammal was where the word sloth came from. But that is not true.

Peter Sokolowski: It was the other way around?

Emily Brewster: Yeah. The original meaning of the word sloth was "disinclination to action or labor." So the creature was actually named for that quality of indolence.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah.

Emily Brewster: That indolence meaning existed for about 400 years-

Peter Sokolowski: Before the animal.

Emily Brewster: Before the word came to refer to the animal.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow.

Ammon Shea: It seemed fitting that sloths would be late to the game, doesn't it?

Emily Brewster: Yes. I think it does. That's a good point. And that somehow the sin would proceed the creature. It's really a lot to throw on a creature I think.

Peter Sokolowski: It's pretty heavy.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. It is one of those seven deadly sins.

Peter Sokolowski: Right. But it would be also like calling a deer fast or something.

Emily Brewster: Right.

Peter Sokolowski: Naming it for its ability.

Emily Brewster: For a quality that it has. Here's another one. This is the word engine. Think of an engine, I think of a car.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure, sure.

Emily Brewster: A car's engine. Right.

Peter Sokolowski: You think of a thing.

Emily Brewster: Right. It's technically a machine for converting energy into mechanical force and motion. But the word comes from Latin ingenium, meaning "natural disposition or talent." So it originally in English meant "ingenuity." And then also it meant "evil contrivance" or "wile."

Peter Sokolowski: Huh.

Emily Brewster: So if you have engine trouble, you're having trouble with your evil contrivance.

Peter Sokolowski: So it became mechanical in the mechanical age, the 19th century or even maybe the 18th century. I suppose there were engines of course, before there was piston-driven fuel engines, there were other kinds of engines that could be pushed by water power or by turning a wheel or something. But that's a fascinating development. Honestly, I would've taken engine to be a concrete term.

Emily Brewster: Right. Obviously now, primarily it is a concrete term. At Merriam-Webster we do not keep track of when a particular sense develops. And so I'm looking in the OED, right, the Oxford English Dictionary is where I can find out this information. And the OED's earliest example of the word referring to a machine or instrument is all the way from 1380.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh, wow. You're saying the engine really comes from ingenuity or it's the same root.

Emily Brewster: It's the same root.

Peter Sokolowski: Yeah. So they clearly referred to whatever the mechanical device was as something that was from the spirit of imagination or creativity or something that was useful. Something that was practical and ingenuity became an engine.

Emily Brewster: Right. The object was an extension of human ingenuity.

Peter Sokolowski: I had no idea.

Emily Brewster: It makes perfect sense.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow. That's a great one.

Emily Brewster: Are you ready for another one?

Peter Sokolowski: Please.

Emily Brewster: The word gravity. And you must know what the original meaning of gravity is, right?

Peter Sokolowski: Seriousness, right?

Emily Brewster: Yes. Yes. We define it as "dignity or sobriety of bearing." And then later it came to refer to importance or seriousness. And it comes from the Latin gravis, meaning "heavy."

Ammon Shea: Gravitas.

Emily Brewster: Yes.

Peter Sokolowski: That one is a little less opaque. However, we think of gravity in the scientific sense as being primary.

Emily Brewster: Right. Right. Dilate.

Peter Sokolowski: You're saying that the medical use of this is not the original use of-

Emily Brewster: That's right. Enlarge or expand, become wide. That meaning is not the original meaning. First meaning that the word dilate had in English was "to describe or set forth at length or in detail."

Peter Sokolowski: Wow.

Emily Brewster: But the use that refers to widening, like pupils dilating, that is directly from the Latin word dilatare. I'm sure I'm not saying that correctly. Means "to spread wide." So the English language started out applying this Latin word for discourse for a way of communicating and then also applied it in this other more concrete meaning. My favorite one though, of all of these, this is the first word that I noticed that had this quality of having a more familiar abstract meaning or a familiar abstract meaning is being older meaning. That is the word parasite.

Peter Sokolowski: Oh yes.

Emily Brewster: I had assumed that typically unhelpful, typically harmful organism that lives in or on another organism and uses it shamelessly, that that was the original meaning of a parasite. But in fact, the social parasite is the word's first territory. "A person who exploits the hospitality of the rich and earns welcome by flattery," is what our definition says.

Peter Sokolowski: Do we date that to when? Does that come from an ancient language?

Emily Brewster: Parasite ultimately comes from Greek, from para and sitos. The sitos, meaning "grain" or "food."

Peter Sokolowski: I see.

Emily Brewster: But parasite was the name of a stock character in Greek and Roman comedy.

Peter Sokolowski: Aha. And it was used in French and that does ring true to courtly life in France, that identification of a type. And it came from French into English with this meaning.

Emily Brewster: Yeah.

Peter Sokolowski: Wow.

Emily Brewster: So Parasite was the guy who gets the wealthy and influential character to give him food by tending to matters involving the host's heart or ego or attention span.

Peter Sokolowski: Sure.

Emily Brewster: A useful leach.

Ammon Shea: Hundreds of years ago, there were a lot of words like smell-feast, which was somebody who was very good at getting invited to dinner. You could smell out a feast or swore on somebody who could beg a meal. That was, I think, a very common idea that mean you had to learn a lot of words for back then. So it almost makes sense to me that parasite would've entered in that sense.

Emily Brewster: The smell-feast makes me think of smellfungus. Smellfungus.

Ammon Shea: Harping critic.

Emily Brewster: A harping critic. But this is also has literary origins. It was a character from a Laurence Sterne novel. He was a hypercritical traveler in a sentimental journey through France and Italy published in 1768.

Ammon Shea: Do you have a term for these kinds of words? You call them like cart before the horse word, or some wittier than that.

Emily Brewster: I don't. I don't have a word for them.

Ammon Shea: Backass words.

Emily Brewster: Backass words. Yes. I'm going with that, Ammon. Thank you. That is what they are now called backass words.

You're listening to Word Matters. I'm Emily Brewster. Stay tuned for a pair of words that are both about getting a rise out of something. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

Ammon Shea: I'm Ammon Shea. Do you have a question about the origin history or meaning of a word, email us at wordmatters@m-w.com.

Peter Sokolowski: I'm Peter Sokolowski. Join me every day for the Word of the Day. A brief look at the history and definition of one word available at merriam-webster.com or wherever you get your podcasts. And from more podcasts from New England Public Media visit the NEPM Podcast Hub at nepm.org.

Emily Brewster: The words ferment and foment sound a lot alike and sometimes inhabit overlapping territory despite their quite distinct etymologies. Peter leads our conversation about where each came from and where they've been since.

Peter Sokolowski: Sometimes we have words that are similar and it's just a coincidence. And sometimes there are words that are similar and that is a coincidence, but they also intersect anyway. And that often causes confusion or a little bit of blending in our minds. And two such words are ferment and foment. You might associate the word ferment with making beer or yogurt or kimchi and the word foment with inciting violent acts. But even though they are spelled in a similar way and sound slightly alike, the fact is they have something in common at their root. We use them today in ways that have developed over the centuries, and they're not really common everyday words, which is maybe why they're easily confused and that they're slightly similar. But ferment, we connect with food, and that is the origin of the word, which comes from the Latin word for yeast, fermentum. And the Latin verb simply meant to cause to rise or ferment, the way we use it today.

But the ultimate root in Latin fervere; fervere meant "to boil." And that's where these two terms cross. There's another word fervent, which also comes from that boil sense. But heat is the operative idea here. In other words, ferment, which in Noah Webster's 1828 dictionary, he defined as "a gentle boiling or the internal motion of the constituent parts of a fluid." And the point that I'm trying to make is that fermenting liquid bubbles. So it looked like it was boiling. So to the ancients, there was this idea of boiling when you created this chemical reaction.

Ammon Shea: I have to interject here and I'm speaking up on behalf of the confused, a group of people of which I am so often a member. If you look up ferment in our dictionary and I presume most other dictionaries, we get intransitive sense "to undergo fermentation : to be in a state of agitation." Then there's a transitive sense, it's "cause to undergo fermentation." And then we give a second transitive sense, which is "foment." So are these words, in fact, synonymous? Is one just so often used mistakenly for the other that it's become accepted? Why would the dictionary do this to us?

Emily Brewster: I think the clear answer to your question is that when a word is used with a particular meaning, even if that meaning is newer and is different from its original meaning, and even if that meaning is already addressed by a very similar sounding word that already exists, that word can take on that other meaning. And then the words are indeed used synonymously. So we have evidence of the word ferment being transitively used to mean foment.

Ammon Shea: But it doesn't go the other way. For instance, we do not define foment as ferment. It's only a one way street here, right?

Emily Brewster: Oh, I think so. And I think what this really means is that ferment is the fun word and foment is the word that is never fun, right? Unless you get pleasure out of agitation, which some people do, of course. Ferment is always the one. If you want the word that's got some fun to it, you want the word ferment.

Ammon Shea: And who doesn't.

Emily Brewster: Who doesn't.

Ammon Shea: So in this sense, it does remind me of podium and lectern in that purists or people who care about these things devoutly, like to say that a podium is something that you stand on, a lectern is something you stand at. Our dictionary defines podium as either one. But we do not make that allowance for lectern. A lectern is just something you stand at. We don't say it's something you stand on. And I think the reason is because that's how people use it. They use one of these words with two meanings. Then they use the other one with a singular meaning.

Emily Brewster: That's right.

Ammon Shea: Kind of the case here.

Peter Sokolowski: Well, yes. And I think part of that is the idea of figurative versus literal also because the word ferment, as we understand it, has to do with this process, with this action, with this creation of beer or yogurt, for example. And then that foment sense is a figurative sense as a metaphor. And as we'll see, the same process happened with foment, but we have dropped the literal sense of foment. That's why it doesn't go both ways. I think.

Emily Brewster: What is the origin of foment? You talked about what the origin of ferment is. Foment-

Peter Sokolowski: Right. So foment is also from Latin and fomentum meaning "compress like a folded cloth." And it comes from fovere meaning "to heat" or "to soothe." In other words, you put a hot cloth on a wound or on a sore part of the body. And so its original meaning in English was "to apply a warm substance to," and even Webster in 1828, he had that sense "to apply warm lotions to, to bathe with warm medicated liquors or with flannel dipped in warm water." So that foment was what we would now call a compress, I think a hot compress. And so that was the literal use of foment. Now that meaning has become obsolete in English. Another English word from fovere is the word fomite, which is one that many of us are familiar with only since the pandemic, an object that may be contaminated with something that's infectious. And we were thinking about don't touch doorknobs, don't touch... In our radio studios, don't touch the dials and the mouse and the keyboard, et cetera.

Emily Brewster: In the early days of the pandemic I remember wondering if we should be concerned about getting the mail. Are there fomites on packages that get delivered to your house? And then we learned that, no, you do not have to worry about COVID-19 being spread through fomites.

Peter Sokolowski: But you see the connection with ferment, which has bubbles, which the ancients took to mean it's boiling and foment, which means to heat. So the fact is they do have something that connects them as ideas, which may be in the back of people's minds is why they use ferment for foment.

Emily Brewster: Also, ferment is a far more common word.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes.

Emily Brewster: And so it gets applied more broadly. I appreciate the fact that it's more common because it says something about eating and drinking and the pleasures of life rather than the treating of ailments.

Peter Sokolowski: Yes, indeed. But the word foment today has the meaning "to promote the growth or development of," which is a synonym of words like incite or to rouse. As in, to foment a rebellion. And this meaning is also close to the word inflame. And so again, inflame the passions of someone is to heat them. And again, this is a metaphor, it's a figurative use of this term.

Emily Brewster: Right. Most of those incite, foment, inflame, they're almost always a negative promotion of growth or development. Rousing can be neutral or positive. It's not very commonly that you foment the development of a new student body organization. It is a promotion of the growth or development of something that is going to cause some trouble.

Peter Sokolowski: But if inflame and foment are figurative uses of "to heat" or "to burn," then we have also ferment and we also say brew, "the controversy was brewing." It's exactly the same image. It's fascinating.

Emily Brewster: Yeah. It really is. The semantic territory is addressed by both of these words.

Peter Sokolowski: It's a superficial resemblance. They sound alike, they are spelled alike, and they have different etymons, but they do cross paths in interesting ways. It's just one of these cases of usage where we have to pay attention if we really care about accuracy. But then what we learn is of course you open up a whole world of etymological meanings and historical meanings and even obsolete meanings.

Ammon Shea: When a foment meets a ferment passing through the rye and all that.

Peter Sokolowski: Things bubble up.

Emily Brewster: Let us know what you think about Word Matters. Review us wherever you get your podcasts or email us at wordmatter@m-w.com. You can also visit us at nepm.org and for the Word of the Day and all your general dictionary needs visit merriam-webster.com. Our theme music is by Tobias Voigt. Artwork by Annie Jacobson. Word Matters is produced by John Voci and Adam Maid. For Peter Sokolowski, and Ammon Shea, I'm Emily Brewster. Word Matters is produced by Merriam-Webster in collaboration with New England Public Media.

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