Friday, December 13, 2013

The Ins and Exes

It surprised me to discover that the word influence, as used today, originated in Renaissance times and arose from astrology. As Online Etymology Dictionary puts it, it meant “streaming ethereal power from the stars acting upon character or destiny of men.” Before the fourteenth century, the word simply meant in-flow, as of water and such. Quite rapidly, in a cultural sense, thus by the mid-fifteenth century, it had come to mean “exercise of personal power by human beings,” thus the “influential person.” The emphasis in both instances is mine. I see this as the rise of the secular. What once emanated from the stars, and earlier still from God, had come to be something that emanated from humans—though not from all of them.

There is no such word as exfluence—despite its utility and nicely democratic aspects. We may not, as individuals, be very influential but we’re most certainly exfluential. I ponder that daily when I perform my first action of each morning on waking up. But those things that we all do, and quite regularly, like breathing and blinking, are not actions likely to be used as honorifics.

There is a sense in which secular times are an inversion of religious ages, and the word in question is a nice example of that. Influence once signified something coming into us, from on high; and now it means something that comes out of us and changes our environment. In has become ex. We retain influence in its old meaning only when describing that staggerer over there who’s “under the influence.”

This brief ramble had me next researching intuition. In my personal dictionary, certainly, the word has great significance. I think of intuition as knowledge flowing into me and, what with my not having done a thing, from a higher source. OED therefore surprised me again. In that word that prefix, in, actually means at, or on. And tuition has the meaning of “looking after.” Intuition therefore means knowledge acquired after looking at something—presumably with a bit of an effort. That amounts to “observation.” If that’s the case I’m not surprised that its origins go back to the mid-fifteenth century as well, from Late Latin. That’s not at all the model in my mind, namely a kind of heavenly whispering of vital knowledge or insight—the cognitive form of grace.

To be sure, Webster’s third (and last) definition of intuition comes close to my personal one: “the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference.” Here again we have a pairing corresponding to contrasting cultural realms: intuition as a kind of grace, intuition as scientific observation. Fortunately there is no extuition in the dictionary. An extuitive individual might be a bore—unless he or she wrote very fine poetry.

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