Monday, October 21, 2013

Spontaneity Sapped of Its Will

Herewith some notes on the “word play” that takes up at least a small part of our every day, Brigitte’s and mine. One of these words was spontaneity, the other was sapper.

The automatic (should we call it spontaneous?) reaction of Google to a search on the first word produces this interesting definition:

The condition of being spontaneous; spontaneous behavior or action.
“She occasionally tore up her usual schedule in favor of spontaneity.”

This is, of course, the kind of definition which dictionary editors ought to avoid like the plague. Why bother if all you do is to replace a noun with an adjective. The definition in the above comes entirely from the example in quotes. There deliberate planning is “torn up” in favor of what? As people now say, in favor of—whatever. Our discussion took it as established that spontaneity meant just what Google here claims. It struck me that while the public assigns a highly positive value to the word, I could think of all sorts of spontaneous behavior (again, to emphasize, as understood above) that produced a great deal of harm to everyone involved. I suggested that, to capture the notion of behavior that tended always to the good, innate was a much better word—assuming, of course, that a higher power made us. Just to make sure, we did the usual: we looked the word up. Where did that spon or spont originate? We knew what innate meant without the big book.

Well, it turns out that sponte, in Latin, means “of one’s free will, voluntarily.” But that lady, who tore up her schedule, presumably made it, in the first place, following her will. So what is the secondary meaning? And does it weaken or sap the word of its original meaning, in which the will played such a strong part? Does it now mean “impulsivity”? Probably. And the roots of impulse only the gods know; some, clearly, are better than others. So why the positive flavor? Is reason and deliberation so yesterday? Probably.

Sapper came at us from some written notes to one of the Foyle’s War episodes. The context was bomb demolition. Sounds like a right proper English word, doesn’t it? Brigitte, however, would have it looked up. The word was new to her. “You haven’t read endless war books,” I said. “And the word’s no longer in much use.” ( I turned out to be wrong. It beats the word dapper by a nose on Google Ngrams—but it has slipped far down in frequency of use from World War I, when it shot up, to the end of World War II, when it began to fade significantly).

Sapper is a curious word. It comes from the French word, sappe, meaning a spade, and a sapper was a man who dug trenches to reach the enemy’s position. Late sixteenth century. Sap, of course, is the liquid in plants. And it was digging trenches on the one hand, from “spade,” and from the Proto-Indo-European sab, for “juice,” on the other, that we get the verb to sap, meaning to drain something of its—whatever. And this removing something undesirable (like liquid from a swamp or explosives from a bomb) that produced the assignment of sapper to people who engaged in demolition.

Spontaneity defined as an action of free will is dangerous. Let us remove the will and leave only the impulse. Right on, right on.

1 comment:

  1. Your post on "spontaneity" does open a lot of questions up.

    "Sponsum" is a binding agreement, yet "sua sponte" may mean "spontaneously".
    Perhaps a "sponsum" must be entered into "by one's free will", and that is what is being emphasized.
    Similarly, the root is used for a number of betrothal and marriage expressions.

    Thought provoking.