It’s a bird! It’s a plane! It’s a trip to the ER!

Dear Word Detective: In Mark 10:14 in the New Testament, Jesus says: “Suffer the children to come unto me …” I think that I know what Jesus meant by this statement, but to my recollection, it’s the only time I’ve seen the word “suffer” used in this context. Apparently it’s a verb, but whence it came? — Richard D. Stacy.

I remember wondering about that passage myself when I was a kid, back when I associated “suffering” with Lassie getting her paw caught in a trap and being in pain. Or maybe she was trying to help some other animal. Whatever. But someone, probably in Sunday School, told me that “suffer” could sometimes mean “allow” and I just accepted it. That’s pretty strange, considering that I didn’t believe my parents when they told me, during the same period, that making a cape out of a bath towel didn’t mean I could actually fly.

In any case, the passage you quote concerns an occasion when children were brought before Jesus for his blessing, and his disciples kicked up a fuss: “But when Jesus saw it, he was much displeased, and said unto them, Suffer the little children to come unto me, and forbid them not: for of such is the kingdom of God.”

The original root sense of “to suffer” was “to bear or carry.” The Latin “sufferre,” meaning “to bear, undergo, carry,” was derived from the combination of “sub” (“under, beneath”) with “ferre” (“to carry”). That “ferre” is remotely related to our English verb “to bear,” but is a much more obvious element is a word such as “infer” (literally “to carry in”), meaning to “read in” added meaning or implications to a statement, etc.

When it first appeared in English in the 13th century, “to suffer” carried two primary senses: one was “to undergo, endure, submit to” something, usually something very unpleasant, such as torture, grave injury or death. One could also “suffer” grief, distress, sorrow, disaster, shame, disgrace, disease and a downturn in business, among other things likely to dampen one’s spirits. Some such “suffering” is, of course, involuntary, but “suffer” also meant “to submit” to adverse circumstances and nonetheless endure, as found in the phrase “long-suffering.”

That “endure” meaning of “suffer” brings us to the second, somewhat more cheerful sense, that of “to allow, permit, put up with, tolerate.” Thus one could “suffer” the presence of a person, animal or condition, etc., or “suffer” something to take place that one might not ordinarily permit. Most uses of this sense of suffer are now considered archaic, and the chances are good that the Bible verse containing the phrase “suffer the little children” is the only such use of the word most people will ever encounter.

4 comments on this post.
  1. Kevin:

    Actually, there is one other use of “suffer” meaning “allow” that is still often run across, and that is in reference to fools. Specifically the phrase “He (or she) does not suffer fools gladly”. It seems to always be used in the case of NOT suffering fools gladly, but interestingly the original source is a case where they are to be suffered gladly.

    Coincidentally (or maybe not so coincidentally) that original use also made its first appearance in the Bible. In Second Corinthians: “For ye suffer fools gladly, seeing ye yourselves are wise.”

  2. Andy Brae:

    Yes, I think this could also relate to the word suffrage as in the Women’s Suffrage Movement. Am I right?

  3. Anonymous:

    Quoting from the Online Etymology dictionary here: late 14c., “intercessory prayers or pleas on behalf of another,” from Old French sofrage “plea, intercession” (13c.) and directly from Medieval Latin suffragium, from Latin suffragium “support, ballot, vote; right of voting; a voting tablet,” from suffragari “lend support, vote for someone,” conjectured to be a compound of sub “under” (see sub-) + fragor “crash, din, shouts (as of approval),” related to frangere “to break” (from PIE root *bhreg- “to break”). On another theory (Watkins, etc.) the second element is frangere itself and the notion is “use a broken piece of tile as a ballot” (compare ostracism). Meaning “a vote for or against anything” is from 1530s. The meaning “political right to vote” in English is first found in the U.S. Constitution, 1787.

  4. Jennifer Thomas:

    At the core, it seems both meanings are the same, that is ‘to endure or to tolerate’. The difference is the emotion experienced during that endurance, which can be anything from despair to patience.

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