or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Friday, September 08, 2006

For Shame

The usual story: I'm at work doing something that leaves my mind at least a little free to puzzle over things, a word pops in, and I try to deconstruct it. Sometimes I can't make any headway, as was the case yesterday when I pondered "embarrass".

It clearly must be from the French, and it sure resembles French "embrasser", "to embrace", but that just doesn't make any sense, so I tucked it away in my brain to be looked up later and went on to other things.

"Embarrass", you will not be surprised to learn, has nothing to do with embraces. Before I get to the etymology, I would like to note that the most usual sense of the word--"to cause to feel uncomfortably self-conscious"--isn't the oldest sense. The phrase "an embarrassment of riches" points us in that direction: the original meaning of "embarrass" is "to encumber" or "to interfere with".

So "embarrass" comes from the Latin "in-", used as an intensifier, plus "barrare", "to block or impede" which, obviously, is the root of our "bar" in the verbal sense of "to block". The French took "embarrasser", "to hamper", from the Spanish, who got it from the Italians, who reasonably enough inherited it straight from the Latin, and here it is, in English, a couple of millennia later. One short metaphorical hop later (we're hampered socially by feelings of shame or ill-ease), and we have "embarrassment".


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