Friday, 20 October 2017

What's in a word: comfort edition

Four Weeks in the Mud

Friends, I have set myself the goal of publishing something -- anything -- daily for the next four weeks.  I need to not just think about writing more, but actually sitting down and doing it. I need to make it a routine if I want to get anywhere with this, so please, bear with me! 

The overarching goal of the blog is to praise God for His ever-present care and love for us, and to point out a few of the gifts He has given me that I have delighted to stumble upon in my ordinary life.  I am planning to rotate through some sub-themes to give me something to write about each day. 

One of these themes will be entymology, or the study of word origins and they way their meanings have changed over time.   Language, and our capacity for it, is an incredible, intimate gift from our God, who spoke the universe into being and is the Word made flesh.  

 As always, I love feedback -- even just knowing that someone is reading, so please leave me a comment or send me an email.

Word of the week: comfort

I love words!  I love understanding the meanings of the roots of words and seeing them pop up in all kinds of unexpected places across languages.

I especially love "faux amis" as they are called in French, or false cognates. This refers to words that seem very similar in two languages, but that are not actually equivalent to each other.  There are three categories of faux amis: the first refers to words that appear to have similar roots, but actually don't; the second category is words that do have a shared root but have different meanings in the two modern languages; the third category is words that have a shared root and an overlapping but not identical meaning in the two languages.  

The reason I love them is that they beckon you to go digging into the root words. Often times you can track back to see that even if the words seem wildly divergent today they do have a similar source and this often adds nuance, layers of meaning, and power to the everyday, ho-hum words we use.  These often help us to understand the culture of the language speakers. And since I'm all about looking out for the treasures hidden in ordinary life crossed with my love for communication, uncovering word treasures is especially delightful.

Let's talk about comfort.

I asked my daughter what she thinks of when she hears that word.  She gave two answers:
1) Sitting on the couch, by the fireplace, petting my cat
2) Hot chocolate and warm beds.

In modern-day North America I think we tend to equate comfort, and its related adjective 'comfortable', with coziness, warmth, security, satiety, safety, and being protected from the environmental extremes; the "creature comforts".   There's a nuance of laziness in this understanding of comfort.

When we think of 'comfort' as a verb, we think in terms of consoling or cheering up someone who is suffering or sad.  Perhaps that is to return the person to a state of comfort -- as described above -- or maybe it's to encourage them to carry on despite their discomfort (ah, that word again).

But when we look at the Latin meaning of the word, we discover that comfort comes from 'confortare' having the roots 'com' (which is a prefix indicating intensity) + 'fortis' which means 'strong'.  It literally means to strengthen much.   A far cry from lounging on the couch!

What does this tell us about ourselves and who we are called to be?  I think it says we are called, in our nature, to be strong, that this should be our neutral state.  Certainly, christianity isn't for wimps!  Ask the martyrs, ask the persecuted Church today.  We, the Church militant are always in battle against sin and the devil.   Even though it is in our weakness that God makes us strong and that we can only do all things through Christ who strengthens us, we are definitely called to strength.  And so we are called to strengthen, to comfort one another, for this battle for good: not so we feel good and have an easy life -- what our culture would tell us is our goal.  As Saint John Paul the Great wrote: "The ways of the Lord are not easy, but we were not created for an easy life, but for great things, for goodness."

Interestingly, and something I hope to write about more at a later date is that Latin is the language of the Roman Empire -- the language of conquering soldiers and cool, calculating, strategizing emporers, but it became the language of the Church.  I think it's beautiful how Christianity subverted this language of war into the language of love.

Be strong!

comfort (n.)

c. 1200, "feeling of relief" (as still in to take comfort in something); also "source of alleviation or relief;" from Old French confort (see comfort (v.)). Replaced Old English froforComforts (as opposed to necessities and luxuries) is from 1650s.

comfort (v.)

late 13c., conforten "to cheer up, console," from Old French conforter "to comfort, to solace; to help, strengthen," from Late Latin confortare "to strengthen much" (used in Vulgate), from Latin com-, intensive prefix (see com-), + fortis "strong" (see fort). Change of -n- to -m- began in English 14c. Related: Comfortedcomforting.



  1. Great article Jennifer! Thank you so much for sharing and I am looking forward to reading you more :)

  2. I really enjoyed reading this today, Jennifer. I love the study of words, and in particular, studying the 'root' of a word. I think that children think differently than adults because they come from a limited perspective of life and life experiences. Also, they think in " concrete" more often than " abstract" thoughts. That takes time and more years of life under one's belt. So, I loved her answer. She removed all the nitty gritty and got down to what comfort personally meant to her. On the other hand, I loved how U shared the more academic answer. Learned something today! Thanks, Jennifer!


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