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To Understand is to Stand Among

Etymology of understanding - Photo of a woman gazing out

I love the word “understand.”

It’s a very, very old English word, dating back to a time when the word “under” did not mean “beneath” but meant “in the middle of” or “among.” To understand a place, you must stand in the midst of it, looking around at everything there and being a part of it. To understand a people, you must stand among them, not outside looking in. It’s a beautiful word.

Our word “comprehend” is from the Latin. The verb, back when the Romans had hold of it, literally meant to seize or take something completely, to grasp hold of it and pull it to you. Prehendere is the same verb used for seizing criminals; it also becomes our English word “apprehend.” Over time, by metaphor, comprehendere came to mean seizing knowledge, approaching something that’s outside of you and taking it by force, taking ownership of it, taking it into your mind. A very Roman idea. To comprehend someone or something that’s outside of us, we approach them, take them, capture them, and own them in our mind. They are now a known quantity. In this way, the empire desires to “comprehend” the world.

But the Anglo-Saxon verb understandan meant … to stand in the middle of things and look around and see what’s there, which you can do because you’re in it and a part of it.

I really love the word “understand.”

We need more understanding in the world.

Stant Litore

(A shameless plug: If you would like more language nerding from me, please get the book Lives of Unforgetting: What We Lose in Translation When We Read the Bible, because you will really enjoy it.

You can find it here.


Photo credit: Marina Vitale on Unsplash; @marina_mv88

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