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shameless pleading






Hint: It’s easier if you name them with numbers.

Dear Word Detective: As the proud father of several (if not more) teenage kids, ownership is a subject which often crops up. This may relate to either the desirability of ownership (“That’s MY iPod charger”) or to the opposite (“It’s YOUR room, you clean it up”). This brought up a debate about the word “belong.” On the face of it, it seems so simple. Can it really mean simply that one individual has “had” something for a sufficient time to claim ownership over its previous owner, i.e., that skateboard belongs to (has “been long” with) me? If that is indeed the case, then it’s just possible that my neighbor can claim ownership of my electric drill, as he’s had it for well over three years and doesn’t show any sign of wanting to return it. Help! —   Simon Silverwood.

Hey, I can swing by your house next week and count your kids for you if it’ll help. I know the feeling. People, especially supermarket cashiers for some reason, keep asking how many cats we have, and we’ve decided that from now on we’re just gonna say “five.” There may be a few more hiding under the couch, but we’re certain we have five. Of course, the only proper answer to “How many cats do you have?” is “How many do you want?”

Your hunch about the logic behind “belong” is, if not really in the ballpark, at least in the parking lot of the ballpark. In the beginning was the adjective “long,” which first appeared in Old English from Germanic roots, generally meaning (as it does today) “of a great extent in spatial measurement or duration” (e.g., “a long rope” or “a long time”) or as part of a phrase specifying length or duration (“three feet long”).

“Long” as an adjective went on to develop a dizzying range of uses both literal and figurative, but, most importantly for our purposes, it also spawned the verb “to long.” More precisely, it gave us two verbs “to long,” which are sometimes considered separate words but which are pretty clearly closely related. The older form of “to long” originally meant simply “to grow longer or lengthen,” but it also meant, as it does today, “to yearn for, to desire deeply,” a sense probably based on the sense of “thinking or feeling for a long time.”

The other “to long,” now considered archaic, meant “to be appropriate to” or “to be a part of.” This second sense of “to long” as a verb has faded from general use because it was replaced by “to belong” in the 14th century. “Belong” has, naturally, acquired its own wide range of meanings since then, from “to appropriately or habitually accompany” (“Grief has a natural Eloquence belonging to it,” 1712) to “to be a member of” (“Those who belong to the rank and file of life need this warning most,”1884) to the “to be legally or rightfully the property of” (“Thy buxom wench … Belongs a better man than thee,” 1764).

The question is, of course, how “belong” relates to the “length or duration” sense underlying “long” as an adjective. In the first place, the “be” of “belong” is not the common “to be” verb meaning “to exist or persist.” It’s not a verb at all. This “be” is an intensifying  prefix, dating back to Old English, meaning roughly “very much” or “thoroughly” (and also found in verbs such as “to bedazzle”). So if something “belongs” to you, that “be” doesn’t mean that it has “been long” in your possession. It means that it really is your property. So your neighbor should give back your drill.

So what’s “long” about “belong”? The “long” of “belong” apparently originally carried the sense of “being of equal length,” which was broadened to mean “running alongside of, parallel to, accompanying, or being a property of.” Thus if I “belong” to a family or club, I “travel alongside” them (in a metaphorical sense at least), and my possessions “belong” to me in that they are closely bound to me, even if I lend them to my neighbor for a few years.

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