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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.


I’ve always thought “stagflation” should have to do with inflatable deer.

Dear Word Detective:  Lately there have been financial reports about the possibility of “secular stagnation,” meaning long-lasting economic doldrums. Checking my trusty Webster’s, I found “secular” has two clusters of meanings. One I was familiar with, meaning basically “non-religious.” The other has to do with long periods of time, meaning “long-lasting” or occurring once in a great while. Are these two senses related? Here I always thought of religion as being concerned with the long view — eternity — and the non-religious as being more concerned with the here and now. — Ken Lerner.

Ah yes, the doldrums, land of disenchantment, where boredom reigns and progress of any kind is elusive. Not quite what you want in an economic system modelled on voracious sharks. The original early 18th century “doldrum” (the term is related to “dull”) was just a stupid or sleepy fellow. In the plural “doldrums,” it means a state of drowsiness, lethargy or depression. In a geographical sense, “the doldrums” are the equatorial latitudes once known to sailors on square-riggers for the lack of wind that could becalm and strand a ship for weeks.

“Secular” is an interesting word with two very different meanings. As you note, most people know it in the sense of “non-religious,” usually encountered in our ever-popular public debates over the relationship between church and state, or the “spiritual” versus the “secular” in various deep-thinking contexts. But “secular” also carries the sense of “long-term” or “lasting for a very long time.” To a scientist, for instance, “secular trees” are those that may be hundreds of years old.

The two senses are very different, but “secular” is considered one word, although the two branches of meaning have followed slightly different evolutionary paths. The root of both branches is the Latin “saeculum,” meaning “generation or age,” which produced the adjective “saecularis,” meaning “pertaining or belonging to an age.” In the early Christian church, “saecularis” was used to mean the temporal world, measured in years, as distinct from the immeasurable and eternal spiritual world. Filtered through the Old French “seculer,” it became our English “secular” in the common “non-religious, worldly” sense.

The other branch of development took the Latin “saecularis” more literally in the sense of “belonging to an age or generation” and produced a sense of “secular” meaning “of long duration” or “happening only at great intervals.” One of the earliest uses of this sense, in fact, was the Roman “ludi saeculares,” games, plays and shows that lasted for three days but were held only once each “age,” then a period of 120 years. Most modern uses of this sense of “secular” are either scientific (especially with regard to slow changes in astronomical or geological processes) or in reference to economic states that are regarded as unchanging over a long period.


Car 54, fuhgeddaboudit.

Dear Word Detective:  I read an article on the internet which claims that the phrase “gridlock” originated in Manhattan, where street intersections were painted with a hatch pattern and people stopping in this “grid” caused traffic jams.  Is this accurate or is there more to the history of this word ? — Aswin Rajappa.

There’s a bit more to it. The crosshatch pattern you’re thinking of, found in some high-traffic intersections in midtown Manhattan, dates back to 1984, when New York City borrowed the idea from London. New York City added the warning “Don’t Block the Box!” on signs and decreed a hefty fine for drivers “caught in the box” (thus blocking traffic) when the light changes.

The “grid” in “gridlock” actually refers to the way streets are laid out in central Manhattan, an arrangement that dates back to 1811. That was when the New York State Legislature decided that Manhattan north of 14th street, unlike many other cities, should be laid out in an orderly grid design in which avenues (running North-South) met numbered streets at perfect right angles. Most of the island was still farmland then; only lower Manhattan was densely occupied, and even in the 1800s the chaotic jumble of its streets led to a famous daily snarl at Broadway and Fulton Street.

“Grid” in this sense of an arrangement of parallel lines is a back-formation, a simplified form, of “gridiron,” the familiar cooking setup found in backyard barbecue grills. The word “gridiron” itself dates back to the 14th century, first appearing as “gredire,” closely related to “griddle.” The “ire” became “iron” apparently by association with other cooking implements. Today “gridiron” is best known as a sportscaster’s term for American football fields (from the marking lines), but “grid” alone has expanded to mean any interconnected self-contained system, such as the electrical grid that supplies power to a region.

A perfectly regular grid is a very efficient arrangement of streets, and can often shorten travel times in a city. Unfortunately, the more cars (e.g., in rush hour), the higher likelihood of “gridlock,” which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as “A state of severe road congestion arising when continuous queues of vehicles block an entire network of intersecting streets, bringing traffic in all directions to a complete standstill.” The term “gridlock” was, fittingly, coined in the New York City Department of Transportation in the 1970s by chief traffic engineer Sam Schwartz, although it didn’t make its debut in newspapers until the 1980s.

As is often the case when a technical term catches the public attention, “gridlock” almost immediately came into play as a metaphor. Today “gridlock” is the go-to buzzword for any apparently immovable impediment to progress, especially if an inability to “play well with others” is seen as the cause. Thus TV pundits drone on for hours about “legislative gridlock” while   frustrated business owners complain of “regulatory  gridlock.” The rest of us can either grin and bear it or get out and walk.