Friday, November 26, 2010

Word Wonder -- busy

Friday, November 26, 2010

Today's Word Wonder idea springs from how busy I have been in the past two weeks -- too busy to get even a short post on this blog of mine. It's been crazy, and I realized my lapse provides me with the perfect lead-in to today's post.

1. Actively engaged in something; occupied.  2. Filled with activity; never still.  3. Officiously active; meddling; prying.      And the verb form: To make busy; occupy (oneself). [from the Old English (before 1050) bysig, meaning "active"] -- Funk & Wagnall's Canadian College Dictionary

This is such a small, common word that it seemed almost pointless to discuss it. But then I thought of all that attaches to the concept of being busy, the stress and hubbub, the satisfaction and productivity. Like many things in which we humans engage, being busy can be good for us and not so good for us.

The word itself is very old. For a long time, keeping busy was not a good thing at all. Close to our modern term "busy-body," it implied that only a fool or a mischievous person was busy. Shakespeare put these words in the mouth of Hamlet in about 1600, as he lamented the dead Polonius' eavesdropping: Thou find'st to be too busy is some danger. Dangerous, indeed. Hamlet had just stabbed him.

In 1633, John Donne chided the sun in these lines:

     Busy old fool, unruly Sun,
     Why dost thou thus
Through windows and through curtains call on us?
Must to thy motions lovers' season run?
     Saucy wretch, go chide
     Late school-boys or sour prentices...

It's possible that only the wealthy and the educated could afford to scorn physical effort, but rich and poor alike seem to have resented the unruly wretch whose nose poked into others' affairs.

A word cousin to busy is "business," which from about 950-1400 was used to express feelings of uneasiness, despair, and anxiety. Over time, the Puritans and others got hold of the word and turned both business and busyness into a virtue. Maybe it was a matter of the "common" folk turning the gentry's view on its ear in the same way that some women have flipped the meaning of "bitch" to mean a woman of power.

In any case, the Puritans started a trend that is entrenched in today's Western society. Check out these common expressions used in various times and places:
  • "Keeping busy?" -- a common greeting that implies you're happy and valuable if you are
  • busy as a bee -- used since before Chaucer wrote "For aye as busy as bees been they" in Canterbury Tales (1367)
  • busy as a bee in a treacle-pot -- used since 1923
  • busy as a one-armed paperhanger -- from a 1908 story by O. Henry: "Busy as a one-armed man with a nettle rash pasting on wall-paper."
  • busy -- a detective or policeman, from 1934
  • get busy -- in use since 1905
So, there you go. For a couple of weeks, I was as busy as a one-armed paperhanger with a nettle rash. It wasn't all stressful because I like my work, and I was helping plan my mother's 90th birthday party and then travelled to get to it.

But I have at times allowed my business and busyness to feel like a virtue, despite my not being any Puritan. At those times, I've often paid for my foolishness by getting sick, acting like a grouch, or doing a poor job...or all of the above.

I plan to keep this post in mind in the future whenever I feel like poking my nose into someone else's business OR being so busy I don't make time for renewing pursuits. There's no future in being a busy old fool like Donne's sun.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Great post. Can’t wait to read the next ones :)