#1  
Old 09-11-2006, 01:00 PM
1D-10T 1D-10T is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Sep 2006
Posts: 2
The word "embarrass"

What's the deal with the word embarrass? Discussing it with a friend of mine, it seemed perfectly clear how the meaning of the word breaks down. Decoding the prefix "em", we get "to cause to be bare-assed", which perfectly defines the meaning and spirit of the word! But then I started looking in the "official" meaning and history and was greatly vexed.

The first definition of "cause to feel self conscious or disconcerted" usually hits the nail on the head, but invariably there are three or four other meanings to the tune of "impede", "hamper", "complicate" and most troubling "cause financial difficulty". Now I'm no Webster, but it seems clear that each of the secondary meanings simply describe conditions that would bring about conditions of the first meaning.

For example, if someone had caused my company to have financial difficulties, I (or the company as a whole) would most likely feel self-conscious or disconcerted (the first meaning of the word), and therefore embarrassed. This cause-and-effect form of defining words seems wrong to me. Should we also add "cause the mafia difficulty" as in "embarrass the family"? What about "cause someone involuntary public nudity"? Sure it causes embarrassment, but is it an actual definition of the word? Why is any meaning besides the first one even needed?

To add to the confusion, the history of the word doesn't even seem to have anything to do with the current primary meaning and seems to focus on the secondary meanings. The origin is from the French "embarrasser" (to encumber, hamper), from the Spanish "embarazar", from the Italian "imbarazzare", from "imbarazzo" (obstacle, obstruction), from "imbarrare" (to block, bar), from the Latin "in" + "barra".

So at what point in history did "embarrass" stop meaning "to thwart" and start meaning "to metaphorically drop someone's pants"? Or does it still mean "to thwart" and 99% of the English-speaking world is simply ignorant of the fact?
  #2  
Old 09-11-2006, 01:46 PM
RealityChuck RealityChuck is offline
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Apr 1999
Location: Schenectady, NY, USA
Posts: 40,648
It's a matter of choosing the right dictionary. Looks like the one you used had the definitions listed in order of how common they currently are. The OED, though, lists them with historical information.

Thus you have:

1. To encumber, hamper, impede (movements, actions, persons moving or acting). First Cite: 1683. The "Having a debt"definition derives from this -- the debt impedes the debtor.

2. a. To perplex, throw into doubt or difficulty. First Cite: 1672.

And finally

2. b. To make (a person) feel awkward or ashamed, esp. by one's speech or actions; to cause (someone) embarrassment. First cite 1828 (and no other cites until 1897)

3. To render difficult or intricate; to complicate (a question, etc.). First Cite 1736.

Thus the most common current use of "embarrass" derives from the definition "being put into difficulty." If you're in a difficult situation, you could be embarrassed by it. Looks like this caught on in the late 19th century.

The similarity to "bare-ass" is coincidental. It's quite clear the current definition is the most recent.
__________________
"East is East and West is West and if you take cranberries and stew them like applesauce they taste much more like prunes than rhubarb does."
Purveyor of fine science fiction since 1982.
  #3  
Old 09-11-2006, 02:12 PM
AHunter3 AHunter3 is online now
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Mar 1999
Location: NY (Manhattan) NY USA
Posts: 19,045
Similarities to the Spanish word for pregnant — embarazada, IIRC — are also apparently coincidental.

Sure was funny seeing bilingual posters in the subways a ways back, headlined "PREGNANT?" in English and "¿EMBARAZADA?" in Español...
  #4  
Old 09-11-2006, 02:13 PM
Spectre of Pithecanthropus Spectre of Pithecanthropus is offline
Charter Member
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Aug 1999
Location: Not here. There.
Posts: 18,679
Quote:
Originally Posted by RealityChuck
It's a matter of choosing the right dictionary. Looks like the one you used had the definitions listed in order of how common they currently are. The OED, though, lists them with historical information.

Thus you have:

.
Webster's 2nd Edition Unabridged Dictionary does the same thing, so for example the first definition given for starve is the original meaning, "to die of hunger or exposure to the elements, especially cold".
  #5  
Old 09-11-2006, 02:33 PM
Frylock Frylock is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2001
Posts: 19,226
Quote:
Originally Posted by 1D-10T
...it seemed perfectly clear how the meaning of the word breaks down. Decoding the prefix "em", we get "to cause to be bare-assed", which perfectly defines the meaning and spirit of the word! But then I started looking in the "official" meaning and history and was greatly vexed.

...

when did it start meaning "to metaphorically drop someone's pants"?
I just want to make sure about something.

My claim: The word "embarrassed" is neither etymologically nor conceptually connected to anything having to do with dropping one's pants. It has never, and does not now, mean "to metaphorically drop someone's pants."

I am 100% sure I'm right about this, but I'l like to see this confirmed by somone. To make sure I'm not crazy.

-FrL-
  #6  
Old 09-11-2006, 02:34 PM
Argent Towers Argent Towers is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2005
Posts: 14,292
Somewhere near Decatur, IL I distinctly remember seeing an EMBARRASS BLVD. Now what the fuck is up with that?!
  #7  
Old 09-11-2006, 02:34 PM
Frylock Frylock is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2001
Posts: 19,226
Quote:
Originally Posted by Frylock
I just want to make sure about something.

My claim: The word "embarrassed" is neither etymologically nor conceptually connected to anything having to do with dropping one's pants. It has never, and does not now, mean "to metaphorically drop someone's pants."

I am 100% sure I'm right about this, but I'l like to see this confirmed by somone. To make sure I'm not crazy.

-FrL-
Oops, sorry, I see that has already been addressed.
  #8  
Old 09-11-2006, 03:14 PM
Excalibre Excalibre is offline
BANNED
 
Join Date: Nov 2003
Location: Michigan
Posts: 7,585
Quote:
Originally Posted by AHunter3
Similarities to the Spanish word for pregnant — embarazada, IIRC — are also apparently coincidental.

Sure was funny seeing bilingual posters in the subways a ways back, headlined "PREGNANT?" in English and "¿EMBARAZADA?" in Español...
Apparently not a coincidence, as the English word is descended from the Spanish word, per previous posts.
  #9  
Old 09-11-2006, 03:55 PM
AHunter3 AHunter3 is online now
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Mar 1999
Location: NY (Manhattan) NY USA
Posts: 19,045
Aye, but apparently not the same Spanish word, unlikely though a casual glance would make that seem.

Check your etymology.
  #10  
Old 09-11-2006, 04:03 PM
Excalibre Excalibre is offline
BANNED
 
Join Date: Nov 2003
Location: Michigan
Posts: 7,585
Quote:
Originally Posted by AHunter3
Aye, but apparently not the same Spanish word, unlikely though a casual glance would make that seem.

Check your etymology.
I'm completely confused by what you're saying here. The etymology cited above claims that embarrass comes from embarazar (and, of course, eventually from Latin) via French. I don't see why that counts as a coincidence. Are you saying something about how they don't mean exactly the same thing?
  #11  
Old 09-11-2006, 05:02 PM
AHunter3 AHunter3 is online now
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Mar 1999
Location: NY (Manhattan) NY USA
Posts: 19,045
But the Spanish word for "pregnant" is not embarazar but embarazada, and I was informed that they are not the same word nor derived from the same root word.

I am prepared to be found wrong on that, but first let's get on the same channel, shall we?
  #12  
Old 09-11-2006, 05:06 PM
Excalibre Excalibre is offline
BANNED
 
Join Date: Nov 2003
Location: Michigan
Posts: 7,585
Quote:
Originally Posted by AHunter3
But the Spanish word for "pregnant" is not embarazar but embarazada, and I was informed that they are not the same word nor derived from the same root word.

I am prepared to be found wrong on that, but first let's get on the same channel, shall we?
Oh, okay. Embarazado is the past participle of the verb embarazar. It's definitely from the same root.
  #13  
Old 09-11-2006, 05:22 PM
Frylock Frylock is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2001
Posts: 19,226
For what it's worth, the Wikipedia article for "Embarazado" says the English word Embarrass is descended from the same Spanish word "Embarazar" as the present Spanish word "Embarazar" is.

-FrL-
  #14  
Old 09-11-2006, 05:44 PM
AHunter3 AHunter3 is online now
Charter Member
 
Join Date: Mar 1999
Location: NY (Manhattan) NY USA
Posts: 19,045
So I was originally right (years ago) and wrongly corrected when I said "embarrassed" essentially means "pregnant"!
  #15  
Old 09-15-2006, 04:16 PM
1D-10T 1D-10T is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Sep 2006
Posts: 2
Quote:
So I was originally right (years ago) and wrongly corrected when I said "embarrassed" essentially means "pregnant"!
But is that the "feeling self conscious" definition, the "thwarted" definition, or the "caused financial difficulty" definition?
Quote:
My claim: The word "embarrassed" is neither etymologically nor conceptually connected to anything having to do with dropping one's pants. It has never, and does not now, mean "to metaphorically drop someone's pants."
Um, if you were in a public social situation and some punk pulled your pants down, wouldn't the best word for describing what you were feeling be "embarrassed"?

And what about the modern expression "You dropped your pants!" (on screen in the film The Color of Money)? The phrase means that you embarrassed yourself by presenting yourself as a fool - quite literally that you em-bare-assed yourself.
  #16  
Old 09-15-2006, 04:26 PM
lissener lissener is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jan 2000
Location: Chicago
Posts: 17,194
1D-10T, you're getting it backwards. All those "secondary" meanings are older; they are the reason that "embarrass," today, means, more generally, what it does. Because it originally meant those more specific means of "embarrassment."
  #17  
Old 09-15-2006, 05:01 PM
Frylock Frylock is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2001
Posts: 19,226
Quote:
Originally Posted by AHunter3
So I was originally right (years ago) and wrongly corrected when I said "embarrassed" essentially means "pregnant"!
If you were claiming that the English word "embarrassed" essentially means "pregnant," then you were wrong.

If you were claiming that the English word "embarrassed" comes from a word essentially meaning "pregnant," then you were wrong.

If you were claiming that the Spanish word for "pregnant" is cognate with the English word "embarrassed" then you were correct.

-FrL-
  #18  
Old 09-15-2006, 05:11 PM
Frylock Frylock is offline
Guest
 
Join Date: Jun 2001
Posts: 19,226
Quote:
Originally Posted by 1D-10T


Um, if you were in a public social situation and some punk pulled your pants down, wouldn't the best word for describing what you were feeling be "embarrassed"?
Sure, but I'm not sure how that is supposed to imply that the word "embarrassed" is either etymologically or conceptually connected with pants-dropping.

The thread has done a good job of showing that there is no etymological connection.

If we're allowings conceptual connections as loose as "Word A is conceptually connected to word B when word A can be involved in an inference together with word B" then I'm not sure what use this notion of a "conceptual connection" between words can be.

If you could somehow show that people generally think of "embarassment" together with an image of one's ass being bared, and vice versa then you will have found what I think can be an interesting and useful conceptual connection. But my claim is that there's no such conceptual connection. People don't generally think of bared asses when they think of embarassment. (They probably think of embarassment when they think of asses being bared, but the interesting and useful kind of conceptual connection I'm referring to would result in the association going both ways, not just in this one direction.)

Quote:
And what about the modern expression "You dropped your pants!" (on screen in the film The Color of Money)? The phrase means that you embarrassed yourself by presenting yourself as a fool - quite literally that you em-bare-assed yourself.
As above, to make an interesting or useful connection here, you'd have to show that people generally think, when saying "you dropped your pants," something like this: "Dropped pants leads to bare asses, and "bare ass" sounds like the "barass" in "embarassment." I am pretty sure people don't generally think along these lines, but hey, maybe you know something I don't.

I believe what you've done is to engage in a bit of "folk etymology."

-FrL-
Reply

Bookmarks

Thread Tools
Display Modes

Posting Rules
You may not post new threads
You may not post replies
You may not post attachments
You may not edit your posts

BB code is On
Smilies are On
[IMG] code is Off
HTML code is Off

Forum Jump


All times are GMT -5. The time now is 09:01 PM.

Powered by vBulletin® Version 3.8.7
Copyright ©2000 - 2017, vBulletin Solutions, Inc.

Send questions for Cecil Adams to: cecil@chicagoreader.com

Send comments about this website to: webmaster@straightdope.com

Terms of Use / Privacy Policy

Advertise on the Straight Dope!
(Your direct line to thousands of the smartest, hippest people on the planet, plus a few total dipsticks.)

Publishers - interested in subscribing to the Straight Dope?
Write to: sdsubscriptions@chicagoreader.com.

Copyright © 2017 Sun-Times Media, LLC.

 
Copyright © 2017