Tag Archives: transitive

Shades of Meaning: Lay and Lie

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There are so many times when I have had to explain that these are actually different words with different meanings and different morphologies.

Obviously, there is a shared etymology here from Middle English leyen and Old English lecgan but, in the eight hundred years since the thirteenth century, this single root has diverged. To lay is transitive and requires an object to have been put down; to lie is intransitive and has no need for an object.

And, it goes without saying that the homophonous (and also intransitive) verb to lie meaning to deceive and dissemble is from a different root altogether: the Old English lēogan. Phonologically equivalent but etymologically and semantically totally distinct.

Who says the English language is easy?

Word of the Week, endure

Imagine the scene.

You are in love; you have got married. You have tattooed the date of your wedding to one wrist. Whilst lying in each other’s arms, you consider having the Chinese symbol for “forever” tattooed on the other wrist. You google it. The result looks good.

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When you share this lovely image and thought, your other half removes herself to the other side of the sofa. “Endure?!” she hisses at you through gritted teeth, ignoring the “Forever” part of the description!

Enduring, lasting and continuing and ongoing and eternal. Enduring like “the eternal rocks beneath” on which Cathy’s love for Heathcliff is founded. Enduring, the opposite of Cathy’s love for Linton which is “like the foliage in the woods. Time will change it … as winter changes the trees”.

Enduring, putting up with, suffering, to remain firm under suffering.

I remember the same ambiguity – presumably deliberate – arising when teaching Ian McEwan’s Enduring Love at A level. Is he having to put up with love; or is he enjoy a love that will last forever?

Etymologically, the ambiguity seems to persist. In fact, very close to Cathy’s description of her love, the somewhat cliched image of “my rock” or “my foundations”. It comes from Latin in and durare being to become hard, solid, firm, lasting which became endurer in Anglo-French and enduren in Middle English.

It seems that the word has always had that duality between being long lasting and the process of becoming hard. Whether your preferred image is geological – some vague voice from Year 7 geography lessons is whispering words like metamorphic, pressure and temperature – thank you Mr Hollister – or culinary, the process of becoming hard seems somewhat arduous.

The problem here is ambitransivity: endure is a verb that can have an object – “I can endure pain” or “I can’t endure popular music” – and hence be transitive; or can exist without an object – I (or my love) can simply “endure” – and be intransitive.

Clearly my tattoo idea focussed on it as an intransitive verb; my wife chose to hear it as a transitive one; McEwan chose to be deliberately ambitransitive.

Phonetics on the word are strange too: /en-dyʊr/, a strangely polysyllabic word sounding like “en-d-yoor” seems to be the most English; yet the more French /en-dʒʊər/ also seems rather natural, sounding like “en-d-jour” the final vowels lengthening and stretching into eternity and the /r/ being almost under the breath as if it is a word that is itself endless.

Like the love my tattoo would describe.