Understanding Understand

Did you know that “mistakable” is the English word that includes the entire history of the English language? Neither did I.

I was listening to “Språkteigen”, a Norwegian radio program on language and Norwegian dialects, and the organizers of a “word exhibit” were interviewed. The exhibit consisted of a single word from each language on exhibit to represent that language. English got “mistakable”.

  • The prefix “mis-” is Germanic. English started as a regular old Germanic language.
  • “Take” comes from Norse “taka” so there’s the North Sea/Viking influence.
  • The suffix “-able” comes from French, when William the Conqueror conquered England.

Most words, when you take them apart, make good sense. The one that doesn’t make sense to me is “understanding”. So today I set out to resolve that.

To understand something means that it makes sense to you in your head; the knowledge of a thing or idea that you just got lets you use it or fit it in with other knowledge. But I don’t get the “under” part.

It’s a Germanic word. The “stand” part is found in Norwegian (“stå”) and German (“stehen”), too. “Understand” is “forstå” and “verstehen”, respectively. These versions aren’t helping me because the “for-/ver-” part is just as baffling as “under-“.

Google to the rescue (since I no longer have my grandma’s illustrated encyclopedic dictionary). “<search term> eytmology” delivers the goods, like this link that gives the full explanation. (It’s not a long explanation.)

Knowing that the “under” part didn’t actually mean “beneath” originally but rather amidst, as it were, clarifies. It makes more sense to be standing within something rather than under it as your new knowledge finds a place to settle in your brain.

The Norwegian/German use of their equivalents of “for” in the prefix is a way of saying the same thing, if one knows that “for” is actually “before”. Standing before something. You are present, next to, within touching distance.

Now it makes sense, and for me the coolness factor of “understand” has increased. I understand.

By Keera Ann Fox

I am a bi-lingual American who has lived most of my life in Norway.
Jeg er en tospråklig amerikaner som har bodd mesteparten av mitt liv i Norge.

2 replies on “Understanding Understand”

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