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The Language of the Mind
Words to describe the human condition
This is an entry in the Saturday series of Timeless & Timely called “Off the Clock,” for paying subscribers. This is where we focus on words, a quirk of history or literature, or something just plain fun.
The mind, where we store our memories, thoughts, and feelings, is a uniquely human thing.
A bit of trivia: George Romero, who pioneered the modern zombie film in 1968, complained in 2010 that he’d “never had a zombie eat a brain, but it’s become this landmark thing.” The trope was introduced in 1985 by Dan O’Bannon’s Return of the Living Dead, in which a zombie woman explains that eating brains relieves the “pain of being dead.”
Since the brain has high levels of serotonin, it could be the chemical salve the zombie needs.
Our brains are what help us make sense of the world. In 1918, Albert Einstein explained how we mold our minds and express our thoughts and perceptions:
“Man tries to make for himself in the fashion that suits him best a simplified and intelligible picture of the world; he then tries to some extent to substitute this cosmos of his for the world of experience, and thus to overcome it. This is what the painter, the poet, the speculative philosopher, and the natural scientist do.”
Along the way, we’ve developed more understanding of the human mind, and therefore have developed a vocabulary to describe it and the various afflictions and affectations that accompany having one.
Here are ten words related to the mind and the history behind them.
A person whose mind is muddled; a stupid or contemptible person. From Old English addle, urine, liquid dung, mire, and Middle English pate, head, skull.
Frenzied, madly violent; esp. to go berserk. From berserker, a Norse warrior of great courage who fights with ferocity and rage; from Icelandic berserkr, probably equivalent to bear-sark, bear-coat. Samuel Ödmann’s Attempt to Explain the Berserk Raging of Ancient Nordic Warriors (1784) claims berserkers ate the mushroom Amanita muscaria to produce their rages.
An impediment to thinking clearly; an inability to concentrate or remember (1853).
To go astray from reason; to wander in mind, to be delirious or mad, to rave. From Latin dēlīrāre, out of one’s wits; originally, to go out of the furrow; from de-, off, away, and līra, ridge, furrow, in plowing; compare French délirer, “to dote, rave, do things against reason.”—Randle Cotgrave, Dict. of the French and English Tongues
A state of being beyond reason and self-control. From Greek ἔκστασις, insanity, bewilderment; the meaning was later applied to the soul’s withdrawal from the body, or a mystic or prophetic trance (applied vaguely by ancient writers to all morbid states characterized by unconsciousness, such as swoon, trance, catalepsy, etc.). Also Greek ἐξιστάναι, to put out of place, ἐξιστάναι ϕρενῶν, to drive a person out of his wits.
“A mysterious form of matter secreted by the brain. Its chief activity consists in the endeavor to ascertain its own nature, the futility of the attempt being due to the fact that it has nothing but itself to know itself with.”—Ambrose Bierce, The Devil’s Dictionary
A feeling of sorrow or regret. From the same Indo-European base as Latin sat, satis, enough, satur, satisfied, full, Early Irish sáith, sufficiency. In English, “having had one’s fill, satisfied” is now often expressed by words that are derived from the Latin satis. Sad was perhaps attested early as a surname (sense uncertain): Henricus Sadde (1222), Ralph Sad (1273).
A painful emotion arising from the awareness of something dishonoring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s conduct. Possibly derived from pre-Germanic skem-, variant of kem-, to cover (covering oneself being the natural expression of shame).
An outburst or display of petulance or ill-temper; a fit of passion. Origin uncertain; first use (tanterum), 1714.
Overwhelmed with emotion. From Yiddish farklemt, grieving; past participle of farklemen, to grip; from Old High German firklemmen, to press, squeeze; whence Old English clam, clom, bond, fetter.
Words help us make sense of the world around us. They give a common language to our common experiences.
As we try to make sense of the metaphysical, perhaps we ought to keep in mind this filler item from Punch in 1855:
“What is mind? No matter.
What is matter? Never mind.”
Thanks, and I’ll see you on the internet.