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shameless pleading

Superstition.

Eek?

Dear Word Detective:  “Superstition” sounds like it should be greater than “stition.”  What might a “stition” be? — Paul.

Oh, about five pounds.  No, wait, that’s a henway.  A stition time saves nine?  Stition on the dock of the bay?  Come to think of it, which I’m sorry to say I have, ought there not, in line with your question, be such a thing as “understition,” a ho-hum reaction to extraordinary occurrences or clearly supernatural events?  Ah, yes, that’s the ghost of Grandma, but it’s chilly today and she probably just stopped by to get her coat from the attic.  Love what you’ve done with your hair, Grannie.

OK, seat backs in the upright position and back to work.  As I have mentioned on several occasions, words can almost never be “reverse-engineered” the way one might a vacuum cleaner or nuclear weapon.  You usually can’t just take them apart and peer at the heap of parts and figure out how they work or how they evolved.  It is true that the meanings of certain Latin prefixes (such as “super,” meaning “above”) and roots tend to be carried into the finished product.  But for every straightforward case such as “disengaged” (“dis” here meaning “not”), there’s a tricky one like “disgruntled,” where the “dis” is an intensifier meaning “very” (giving us “very gruntled,” or very displeased, “gruntling” being an old word for the grumbling and muttering of anger).

But now I’ll just neatly reverse my tack and point out that your “unscrew the inscrutable” method does, indeed, work in the case of “superstition.”  Today, of course, we use “superstition” in a fairly pejorative sense to mean a belief in magic, spirits and the realm of the supernatural.  But the original meaning of “superstition” was specifically religious, to wit, an irrational or excessive religious belief (or system of religion) based on fear or ignorance.

The roots of “superstition,” which appeared in English in the early 15th century, are the Latin “super” (meaning, as usual, “above”) and the participle form of “stare,” which means “to stand,” giving us a basic sense of “the act of standing over or above.”  Etymologists have long debated whether the logic behind “superstition” was originally “to stand over something in awe and amazement” or “to place oneself above and beyond accepted belief through zealotry.”  It has also been suggested that the original meaning was that the “superstitious” one had carried over the irrational beliefs and practices of paganism into a new religion, allowing them to “stand above” the accepted tenets of the new faith.

In any case, today’s use of “superstition” to mean an irrational belief does carry forward that sense of something “above and beyond” the things that most people accept to be true.

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