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February 21, 2020  |  Friday words #208  |  558 hit(s)

Everyone knows what distress is: "great pain, anxiety; acute suffering," to quote Dictionary.com's definition. Distress is bad, of course. Just like stress is bad, right? And stress appears to be part of distress, as you can see. (But hold that thought.)

At a work meeting not long ago, I learned about a different kind of -stress: eustress. Eustress is a good kind of stress—"having a beneficial effect on health, motivation, performance, and emotional well-being," this time from Merriam-Webster. It is, seemingly paradoxically, a positive stress.

Eustress can occur when something is challenging but not impossible. It results not in pain, anxiety, or suffering, but in a sense of fulfillment. An important distinction between distress and eustress is that it's in the eye, so to speak, of the beholder. Something that makes me curl up in the corner might make you roll up your sleeves and look forward to an interesting day.

The word eustress has apparently been around since 1975 (but it still isn't in every dictionary). Aside from the definition, what interested me was the structure of the word. It looks like someone broke apart dis+stress, and then whacked eu- (Greek for "good") onto the -stress part to create "good"+"stress."

But if you back up a sec and look at distress, it doesn't entirely make sense to break -stress off from that word and treat it as, well, stress. If you do, you're left with a prefix di- ("two") or possibly dis- ("un," or "de" as in disadvantage or disallow). How do di- or dis- work with stress?

It turns out that we didn't build up distress by combining di(s)- and -stress. We inherited distress as a unit from French. The term comes from Latin dis- ("apart") and the stringere ("squeeze"). But even as far back as the Middle Ages, the dis- part lost its sense and as the OED puts it, "became merely intensive." So distress is getting squoze hard. In fact, the word stress might in part be a shortened form of distress.

But no matter. However we cut up distress, the word eustress makes a neat pairing.

Ok, origins for real. In my random reading this week, I stumbled across the origins of the word gossip.

To set the stage, in Old English, the word gossip was godsibb(e). As you can see, the go- part in today's word was god in Old English, and just like it says, it was the word for god. The -sip part (-sibb(e) in Old English) is the same word part that we see in sibling, referring to a relative.

The word evolved in stages. The word godsibb or godsibbe originally meant something like "god parent." From this explicitly familial sense, the word was extended to mean a friend or neighbor. This sense narrowed somewhat to mean a woman. This sense was common in Elizabethan times, and as late as 1855, "my mother's gossip" referred to her female friend.

From this sense of referring to a person, it made a leap and started referring to conversation among those friends, especially talking "about persons or social incidents." And that brings us today, where the "conversation" sense is the primary one.

This sib-/-sip connection surprised and delighted me. (Remember also the word nibling from last year.) It's fun not only when we have a word that goes back straight to Old English, but one that carries around its etymology out in the open, so to speak.

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