Some of the best word adventures are those in which I discover that a word I thought I knew contains mysteries untold, or in which I find that sets of words I was certain were connected etymologically just aren’t. This has both, and it’s a word that is so everywhere I can’t even believe it’s as unsettled as it is: pregnant.
So here’s what I thought: “ok, ‘pregnant.’ Means, you know, ‘with stuff all stuffed in.’ And so something like a ‘pregnant pause’ is a pause with all kindsa figurative stuff stuffed in. If something’s ‘impregnable’ it means no stuff can be stuffed in. ‘Pregn-‘ has always got something to do with ‘stuffing.'”* Isn’t that reasonable?
But GET THIS.
There’s a whole bunch more after that but we just have to parse the top bit. Because a) one way we use it is more literally specific to actual birth than I’d realized, and b) another way we use it has nothing to do with birth or being stuffed or any of it, because that way comes from an entirely different word in an entirely different language!
Lest we think this is just 1934 Websters Int’l not knowing enough yet, here’s etymonline on it:
pregnant (adj.1) “with child,” early 15c., from Latin praegnantem (nominative praegnans, originally praegnas) “with child,” literally “before birth,” probably from prae–“before” (see pre-) + root of gnasci “be born” (see genus).
pregnant (adj.2) “convincing, weighty, pithy,” late 14c., “cogent, convincing, compelling” (of evidence, an argument, etc.); sense of “full of meaning” is from c. 1400. According to OED from Old French preignant, present participle of preindre “press, squeeze, stamp, crush,” from earlier priembre, from Latin premere “to press” (see press (v.1)). But Watkins has it from Latin praehendere “to grasp, seize,” and in Barnhart it is from Latin praegnans “with child,” literally “before birth” and thus identical with pregnant (adj.1).
The bolded bit makes clear the lack of consensus on whether the “cogent etc/full of meaning” meaning even does come from elsewhere, and if it does, where. What a great mess!
So then: what of “(im)pregnable”?
pregnable (adj.) 1530s, alteration of Middle English preignable, earlier prenable (early 15c.), from Old French prenable “assailable, vulnerable,” from stem of prendre “to take, grasp, seize,” from Latin prehendere “to take hold of, to seize” (see prehensile).
Ha, wow! Not even a link to the “pregnant” entry. So…if we’re like “UGH, this castle we want to storm is so impregnable!” what we mean (or meant) was NOT “we can’t make our army into, you know, kind of a directed driving force, and find and penetrate a hole in their defenses, and then the castle’s all full of us.” We actually meant “we can’t grasp this castle with our little army-hands.”
This does align with the bolded Watkins-reference in “pregnant (adj 2)” above, but it doesn’t even matter: it’s all just a beautiful illustration of how words that seem like they must be derived from each other or from a long-ago common source may well come instead from long-ago different sources, and have simply come to converge in our own usage and/or orthography, due to some combination of phonological and morphological magic. They sound similar enough and mean things our brains can match up, so we eventually start writing them the same way and BOOM.
So here’s the full 1934 entry:
What I like about this is that it announces the mess up front, “in some senses, fr., or confused with…[all the French pressing, squeezing cogency]” and then just gives us all the damn senses and lets us figure out which might be which, because at this point there aren’t likely to be right or wrong answers. 1-6 seem “pre-birth” ish; 7 and 8 seem “pressingly meaningful” ish, but when a word has this many senses, they are going to bleed into one another, so who even knows?
I do have one almost entirely intuitive theory about all this though, and it comes from a bit I’d left out of the etymonline entry for pregnant (adj.1) (the “before birth) one:
“Retained its status as a taboo word until c. 1950; modern euphemisms include anticipating, enceinte, expecting, in a family way, in a delicate (or interesting) condition. Old English terms included mid-bearne, literally “with child;” bearn-eaca, literally “child-adding” or “child-increasing;” andgeacnod “increased.” Among c. 1800 slang terms for “pregnant” was poisoned (in reference to the swelling).” [note: why is mid-bearne so cute? I love that one.]
So…I mean, there’s the stupid sex-negative patriarchy for you (“poisoned”??), but also it makes me wonder if perhaps the “cogent, etc” sense for “pregnant” came to take on more and more shades of the “pre-birth” sense because for 500 years using the word was potentially nasty. So being allowed to say it and mean an ostensibly totally non-nasty different thing might have been attractive (“I’ll describe this argument as ‘pregnant’…that seems somehow more memorable than ‘cogent'”), and since everybody knew it was so naughty to say it about a lady**, hearing it in any sense would trigger at least a little emotionally-tinged activation of that pre-birth sense. And here we are, picturing castles as being penetrated by invading armies and pauses as about to burst forth with the meaning they’ve been gestating, and it’s hard to put my finger on how but it feels like a victory for women’s bodies and I’ll take it.
ps: so…it’s 2017! I don’t resolve things but I do try to begin as I mean to go on, i.e. “writing and eating lobster mac and cheese,” but even though linear time is demonstrably bullshit, the year “officially” started for me last night at Talib Kweli’s show in Asheville (which despite my cogent and compelling state I made it all the way through, til 1 am!). I want you to know that hundreds of people started the year together by singing “fuck [the orange sex pest]” with joy and resistance. Here’s the original song and video. If you haven’t heard/seen it, give yourself the gift.
* and indeed this is an Australian euphemism for pregnancy!
**this is how I say lay-dee: