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COMFORT - PART I: THE ROOTS OF A WORD

November 18th, 2019

This two-part episode is dedicated to Dennis Michael Hynes. You can connect with him on Twitter at @HynesDm

 

Let’s start by juxtaposing two phrases that we often hear:

 

 

This is what I’m comfortable with.

 

versus

 

I’m pushing outside of my comfort zone.

 

The psychological distance that can exist between these two phrases across people is vast.  Some people are timid and cautious, operating on something that is close to straight up fear, whereas others are constantly reaching beyond their own limits, as if trapped by them and seeking to escape.

 

What exactly does this word comfort mean?

 

English as a language is a bit like a cookie monster that never discriminated between types of cookies.  Our language grew by ingesting huge portions of many other languages.  In the case of the word comfort, it most recently derives from Old French in the 13th Century, meaning something akin to ‘cheer up’ or ‘console’.  The word still carries this meaning, as in “we comforted her while she grieved the passing of her husband.”  The close proximity to fragility and even weakness here has somewhat eclipsed the deeper roots of the word and in the current culture comfort is simultaneously seen as both something good to rely on and something bad to get away from.  To understand this strange tension, we have to go deeper, and farther back in the past.  The French derivation comes from Late Latin where the real meaning begins to emerge.

 

To do so, it’s helpful to split the word in two parts, with the break after the m.

 

com + fort

 

The first part is a word forming element, that in Latin means “with, together” or “in combination”.

 

The second part of the word becomes obvious when you treat it as a word all on it’s own.

 

Think of a fort, as in a fortified structure, or a fortress.

 

‘Fort’, also from Latin means ‘Strong, steadfast, spirited.’

 

Now think about these roots in combination with our current use of the word comfort.  If we think of it’s deeper etymological roots, then comfort means something like ‘together with strength, steadfastness and spirited.’ 

 

Apparently the word has drifted in its meaning, but the drift tells a story that can help us understand what it means to grow.  Think again about those two phrases that are at the beginning of this episode.

 

This is what I’m comfortable with.

 

and

 

I’m pushing outside of my comfort zone.

 

Some people think the first phrase is a sign of weakness and relish in the second.  Such people have gravitated around another phrase:

 

Comfort is a Cage.

 

But now that we’ve looked into the history of the word comfort, let’s think about this workout-mantra a little more deeply.  Those first three letters of the word comfort don’t impart too much meaning, and ultimately it’s the second part of the word that carries the core of the word.  So let’s drop those first three letters:

 

A Fort is a Cage.

 

What these static words really imply is a dynamic process, not categories with which we segregate the weak and the strong. 

 

You can check out Part II Here


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Podcast Ep. 582: Comfort - Part I: The Roots of a Word

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