Word-nerd alert:

The English word “fear” is very old. According to the Oxford English Dictionary (or, “The Tome,” as I prefer to call it), “fear” was first defined as “a sudden and terrible event” and was first found written in English in 1068. A hundred years later, in 1175, the word meant “the emotion of pain or uneasiness caused by the sense of impending danger, or the prospect of some possible evil” and had become “the general term for all degrees of the emotion.”

It is interesting the shift from the presence of fear (an event) to the prediction of fear (“impending,” “prospect”). In 1068, fear was something that happened which was “sudden and terrible,” but by 1175 fear was a feeling that something could happen that was dangerous or evil.

I dug a little deeper into fear’s etymology (word genealogy) and found that the base of the word is pre-Teutonic and is probably a form of the Aryan root per [“fare” or “there”]: to go through. That’s interesting!

If fear is something we go through, that would include the approach (hasn’t happened) and the passage (it’s happening). To me, this hints at something in our cultural heritage as English speakers (native and learned) that links feeling fear with going through something that is sudden and terrible.

So what difference does knowing fear’s etymology make to…anything?

Well, many linguists, particularly George Lakoff, have pointed out that our language informs (brings to form) our reality; that is, how we experience our lives changes when we change the words with which we define and describe that experience. Psychologists tend to concur and we now have popular memes urging us to practice saying “thank you” to be happier, and paying attention to what we call a person (“girl” or “woman”; “Indian” or “Native American”; “terrorist” or “troubled”; etc.) to see why we behave in particular ways toward them (yes, including what pronouns we use).

As this relates to how we experience fear in various forms, let’s look at another word that is deeply rooted in our experience: intuition. Although “women’s intuition” tends to be debased as fantasy in much of our culture, the root of the word “intuition” (“tuere”) is directly related to the role of real fear – “to guard, to protect.”  The “gut feeling” of intuitive fear is qualitatively different from anxiety, worry, and panic, according to Gavin de Becker in his book The Gift of Fear.

In his book, de Becker emphasized that our ability to explore the links associated with what triggers different “feelings” will define our ability to survive and thrive. Neuroscience in Michael Gershon’s The Second Brain supports the value of intuition, of these “gut feelings,” as more accurately “gut thoughts” in our “second brain.” Gershon shared research that shows that our intestines contain more neurons than our cerebellum; our guts are literally already thinking before we know it. (Brings a whole new perspective to the condition and care of our innards…like when we’re full of s…) Women’s intuition is our deep knowing that a threat is present, even if that knowing has yet to reach our conscious brain.

As I pointed out in “We never have a thought without a felt,” by the time information reaches our consciousness, it has already had to travel through our feeling center. Indeed, the information may have entered our neural network even before that via our gut. In situations where time is of the essence, acting on our gut can literally save us or those we love before we know what we are doing.

So when we feel we are going through something sudden and terrible, we are getting loud signals that we need to guard and protect, that we need to pay attention to what is happening before we our consciousness can apply words and labels to it. Reversing this process is what gets us in trouble. When we think (consciously apply words and labels) to something that might be sudden and terrible, we charge up fear responses that have been programmed or trained into our brains. We then pay attention to what we’ve been told to be afraid of and churn our guts into an acidic mess that garbles any “gut thoughts.”

Even though, as my colleague Brandi Painter put it, “we can’t think our way out of what we felt our way into,” our linguistic (thoughtful study of language) heritage offers clues to breaking the cycles and feedback loops of our American fear factory. It is with an appreciation of irony that I can declare that changing the way we think about fear changes our experience of feeling fear, and that when we think before we feel, we act on a manufactured fantasy rather than what is actually happening.

Word-nerd out.

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