Nothing Distressing About De-stressing

“Well, Ms. Kahn, that concludes our business,” Ms. Khan said, extending her hand. “I’m sure my employer will be happy with your temp- job. May we call on you again if need be?”

“You’ve got my number.”

That was some lunch. The jacaranda trees cast long shadows as I headed back into the library. I glimpsed a tall jean-clad man at the end of the corridor, but when I caught up with him I saw that it wasn’t C.J. Chan. I exited through the Fifth Street door and turned left to the Red Line and home.

Safely back in the Kenmore Arms, I snapped the blinds shut, poured myself a double and eased into my wing chair. That’s how I de-stress after a hard day of chasing word origins. Yoga’s not my style.

“Hmm,” I thought, “De-stress means removing stress, but distress seems to mean adding stress.” I let the soothing drink warm my throat for a few more seconds, then resignedly set the glass down and plopped my laptop onto the appropriate part of my anatomy.

There it was: de-stress meant deemphasizing words and syllables in speech before it meant relaxing. It comes from prefix de- , which was originally Latin with several meanings clustering around ‘down, down from, off, away,’ but now it’s what the OED calls a “living prefix, with privative force.” Cute; huh? The dictionary goes on to explain that de- has “the sense of undoing the action of the simple verb, or of depriving (anything) of the thing or character therein expressed…”

“Okay, so why does privative mean ‘depriving’?” I wondered. “Never mind; I’ll think about that another time.”

I shut off the laptop and set it on the desk and shut my eyes. Stress could wait.

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Lexie Kahn: Word Snooper is a blog about words and their origins at WordSnooper.com.
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