Stress and Distress

“Say the worrrrd I’m thinking of. Have you hearrrrd –“

My phone. I must have nodded off. “Lexie Kahn, Word Snooper,” I answered.

A voice like an engine in need of a tune-up grunted, “Bugsy Beetlebaum. Murder is my business. I want to talk to you about a contract.”

“You got the wrong number, mister. I’m an etymologist.”

“Well, I’m not an entomologist,” he said, “but I know bugs. And I know how to eliminate pests. I need to get the word out to the right people. A word wrangler like you could be useful. What say I buy you lunch tomorrow at Musso and Frank and we talk?”

“No harm in talk,” I said, taking down the details. Two free lunches in a row. This was turning out to be my week.

Something hit me. My head started to throb. It wasn’t a blunt instrument but the realization that I really didn’t know what kind of pest Mr. Beetlebaum rubs out: the kind with six legs or two.

That could stress a girl out. Oh, yeah. I was looking up the origin of the word stress. It’s from Latin strictus, probably via Old French estrecier. In the 14th – 16th centuries the verb meant ‘to subject (a person) to force or compulsion; to constrain or restrain; to compel to (do something)’ or ‘to abridge the liberty of; to confine, incarcerate.’ That gave me a chill.

Later it meant ‘to overwork or fatigue (something).’

The noun stress showed up in writing about the same time as the verb: early 1300s. De-stress may mean removing or reversing stress, but my hunch that distress meant adding stress didn’t hold up. According the OED distress is an older form of the word. The first (ahem!) unstressed syllable dropped off, making distress into stress, the way esquire became squire and attention! became ‘tention!

I was getting a tension headache. I would think about stress and strain later.

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