In his remarks in the immediate aftermath of the massacre at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Ore. last week, President Obama commented on the epidemic of mass shootings in the US: “Somehow, this has become routine. The reporting is routine. My response here at this podium ends up being routine. The conversation in the aftermath of it. We have become numb to this.” Numb – the word is very cautionary and, if we look to its etymology, perhaps instructive.
The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) cites numb in English’s written record around 1400. Then, the word signified “deprived of physical sensation or of the power of movement, especially through extreme cold.” The OED cites figurative usages for numb – “emotionally deadened, unresponsive, or spent, as the result of grief, shock, fear, etc.” – by the late 1560s, though this was rare until the 19th century.
Numb is a past participle of a much older and once everyday verb in Old English, nim, and is first recorded in the form of nomme. Nim – or niman, if we consider its infinitive form in Old English – functioned like take, a Scandinavian-based verb that eventually supplanted nim by the 15th century (OED). As philologist Walter Skeat explains it, numb originally conveyed “taken” or “seized,” which shifted to mean “overpowered,” and then extended to “deprived of sensation.”
But where did that b come from? We don’t pronounce it. No one ever did. We did, however, pronounce the phoneme in a word related to numb: nimble. Here, this b is called “excrescent,” describing a consonant added between two others. This happens usually to make pronunciation easier. (Try pronouncing nimble without the b. Does the articulation feel a bit more strained to you?) As a result of hypercorrection in English spelling, the b was added to other words ending in m. Crumb, dumb, thumb, and limb are other examples. Anatoly Liberman, the Oxford Etymologist, explains the phenomenon in greater depth on an excellent piece he wrote on English spelling.
Now, nimble – attested in a variety of forms in Old English, including numel – joins nim and an instrumental suffix, -le. Nimble is a very old word in the language, first documented to mean “quick at grasping, understanding, or learning” and “quick to seize or take hold of one” (OED). With that suffix -le, the OED goes on, nimble means means “apt to nim.” By the 1400s, we have evidence of its more modern sense of “agile,” or “quick and light in movement.”
We should listen to numb’s etymological lesson and seek to be nimble – in mind and in action – instead.
Coming up, we’ll also take a look at the deeper roots of nim and some surprising words it related to.
m ∫ r ∫
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