or, stuff that I dragged out of my head

Location: Moncton, New Brunswick, Canada

Monday, February 06, 2012

Sense and Sensibility

You know there are more than five senses, right? A dozen for sure, maybe as many as twenty. And you are going to say, "No, idiot, there are five, touch taste sight hearing smell, everyone knows that." And I am going to say, "Well, what about pain?" It's not the same as touch, but it most assuredly is a sense. And what about the ability to feel heat and cold? They're also not the same as touch because you can sense them from a distance, and what's more, they operate with different sets of nerve endings, so they're not one extra sense, they're at least two. Isn't balance a sense? Isn't hunger a sense?

The most extraordinary sense, I think, is proprioception, which is the map in your brain that tells you where all the parts of your body are at all times in relation to one another. I was thinking about this in the shower this morning, because after shaving I squirted some shower gel into my hands, closed my eyes, and proceeded to wash my hair and face, at which point I realized that I could do this with my eyes closed — that I know exactly where each part of my face was, that I could get my soapy hands to my face and get it clean without actually knowing where it was or even thinking about it, without jamming my fingers into my mouth or whacking myself in the ear. That is astonishing when you think about it, though it such a commonplace that we hardly ever do think about it, any more than we think about breathing, and yet you always know on whatever subliminal level where each part of your body is located in space. It is the most ordinary of marvels: you couldn't get through life without knowing how your body is arranged in space, and yet how much brainpower must be devoted to that seemingly simple task?

The French word for the adjective "own", as in "my own body", is "propre". This certainly looks like English "proper", and it certainly is where we got the word from. The French word in turn is descended from Latin "proprius", "specific to oneself", from "pro privo", "of or from the individual". And this, of course, is the source of "proprioception": the collection of receptors that give a sense of self. It's a new word, only a century old, but a good and useful one.

English "proper" with its wider sense of "right, correct, fitting" is very old, from the 13th century. "Proprietary", "appropriate", and "propriety" are obvious extensions of this.

English "own" is related to German "eigen" with the same meaning, in case you were wondering where that comes from. And this is very interesting: the verb "to own", an obvious extension of the adjective, died out in early English, though its noun "owner" persisted, and verbal "own" was resurrected as a back-formation from "owner" in the early 1700s.


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