Saturday, January 8, 2011

Word Wonder -- comfort

Saturday, January 8, 2011

noun: 1. A state of mental or physical ease, especially one free from pain, want, or other afflictions.  2. Relief from sorrow, distress, etc.; solace; consolation.    3. One who or that which gives or brings ease or consolation.  4. Help or support... 
verb: 1. To cheer in time of grief or trouble; solace; console.  2. To relieve physical pain.  3. Law  To aid; help.  [from the Old French confort, which comes from the Old French conforter. That, in turn, comes from the Low Latin word confortare, meaning "to strengthen." The two parts of the word "comfort" are com-, which means "with" and fortis, which means "strong."] -- Funk & Wagnall's Canadian College Dictionary

It's likely that none of what you've read so far surprised you about today's Word Wonder. It didn't surprise me, either, at first. But what was new to me was the strong association the word has with the idea of strength. I'd never thought about that before.

The "-fort" part of comfort comes from one branch of the ancient Indo-European root bhergh-, which meant "high; with derivatives referring to hills and hill-forts." [Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, Tenth Edition, page 1643] At a time when being higher than your enemy increased your chances of survival, hills were crucial. A bhergh- meant strength (-fort)...thus, hill-forts. A number of languages have words related to this root: burg, which meant a fortified town; borough; belfry; burgomaster; even burglar; plus fort, force, forte, effort, enforce, fortify, fortissimo, pianoforte, and reinforce. They all have to do with height, strength and/or safety.

Fast forward a good many years, and comfort becomes the allies and reserves that arrive to support an army -- strength and fortification to help in battle. Further on in history (or perhaps all along), the term "comfort for the troops" came to mean having women or boys available for sexual gratification.

Somewhere along the way, the strengthening nature of comfort evolved into the softer meaning generally used in English today. We think of the solace, ease, and consolation mentioned in the definition above. We think of warm, cozy comforters and muffins and cups of tea or hot chocolate. Comfort means a friend who will listen and offer support.

Ivor Brown, author of A Word in Your Ear & Just Another Word, believes "This is one of the admirable words which have turened soft and it needs to be re-stiffened to its proper shape and value." Although it is, as he continues, " origin, the giver of strength and valour," I don't agree with him that comfort has lost its power.

Upon reflection, I've come to think that the comfort we derive from soft blankets and rich carbohydrates and solace in times of grief is closely similar to the strength ensured by high places in times of war. No matter how comfort comes to us, it usually does, indeed, make us stronger. Whether we fight enemies on a battlefield or struggle with the onslaught of life's problems, comfort is welcome. It helps us move from feeling overwhelmed by sadness or depression or loneliness to feeling stronger and better equipped to move forward.

I hope that, whatever the circumstances, you will offer and accept comfort, thus helping strength to return.

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