On September 23, George Wallace, @MrGeorgeWallace, tweeted “How come you only hear about folks being distraught? No one’s ever like, ‘I’m good, Bro. I’m traught as hell.’”

The answer to this might leave you variously whelmed or gruntled, but I wouldn’t be surprised if you felt a little straught. At the very least, though, you might be distracted.

The thing is, distraught is… a bit of a historical misanalysis. Like parsnip, or belfry, or cockroach, or penthouse, or female. The best you could even say is that it’s a deliberate blend, like chillax.

Oh, are you a bit distracted by that list of examples? Maybe even disgustipated? Are they vomitrocious? Sorry, I’ll give you the quick low-down and then we can move on to the main event. Parsnip looks like a blend of parsley and turnip but it actually came from Old French pasnaie (from Latin pastinum, probably), reanalyzed to pasnepe under the influence of nep (‘turnip’), and then that was reanalyzed to parsnip because parsley somehow (they don’t have a lot in common). Belfry comes from berfrey, related to German Bergfried, referring to a tall defensive tower – but, hey, bells! Cockroach, as you may know, is from Spanish cucaracha, no relation to cocks or roaches (a roach is a kind of fish, and I don’t mean a silverfish), but if you see one crawling from under your pineapple, you’re only reaching for your Merriam-Webster for the sake of violence. Penthouse is from pentice, ultimately from the same Latin root as append. And female is originally from femelle, from Latin femella, diminutive of femina, no relation to male.

OK, but distraught? Well, it started as distract (meaning, as I’m sure you don’t need to be told, distracted), ultimately from Latin distractus, but, in a Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup way, it also started as straught, a strong past-tense form of stretch (in other words, straught is to stretched as taught is to teached, except that the strong form won in the latter but not in the former). We could say that distract was just misanalyzed by analogy, but we could also say that it was at least partly deliberate, a blending like disgustipated or vomitrocious or chillax, because being distraught is not just being distracted (even as in “driven to distraction”) but feeling stretched in various directions (as, for instance, by several divergent horses).

The funny thing about that, mind you, is that that’s what distractus meant too: dis- ‘apart, away’ plus tractus, from trahere ‘pull, drag’ – you might recognize the relation to traction, tractor, and even attraction (something that draws you in). If you’re distracted, your attention is pulled in different directions. 

And if tractus had passed through the same Germanic machinery as Proto-Germanic *strakkaz (which became stretch and, at one time, straught), it could have become George Wallace’s traught. It still would have meant ‘pulled’, but only one way, not several at the same time. Which, I guess, is more attractive.

2 responses to “distraught

  1. Fascinating as always. Thanks James.

  2. Pingback: desultory | Sesquiotica

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