Stress and Strain: Twin Words

I was straining under the stress. Maybe puzzling out some word origins would help me relax and get a good night’s sleep before meeting Bugsy Beetlebaum in the morning.

My techie friends, the engineers and physicists, like to distinguish between the nouns stress, ‘pressure or tension exerted on a material object’ and strain, how much something gets bent out of shape by the stress. Okay, for my really picky friends, so they don’t get bent out of shape, make that ‘the magnitude of a deformation, equal to the change in the dimension of a deformed object divided by its original dimension.’ In common use, though, strain can refer to ‘a force tending to pull or stretch something to an extreme or damaging degree.’ Drives the techies crazy.

But stress and strain are twins separated at birth, or “doublets,” as we say in the trade, two words with the same origin. As I had just learned, stress is a shortened form of distress. Distress came into Middle English by way of Old French from *districtia, a word etymologists infer must have existed in late popular Latin. It would have been the past participle of distringĕre to distrain. Distrain? Don’t worry if you haven’t heard of it; it’s obsolete. Remember all those definitions of stress: ‘compress, squeeze, confine, bind, hold captive, etc.’? Distrain meant the same thing. And guess what. It entered Middle English via Old French from Latin distringĕre. And strain? Same story.

Ah. I felt the stress draining from me. Time for some shut-eye.

Illustration: Laura Herman as Lexie Kahn by J.B. Herman

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