Coming to Grips With One’s Intelligence, or, A Short History of the Verb Understand
People constantly wonder why understand means what it does. The concept of understanding is highly abstract. It is much easier to say I see (implying that now everything is clear), and I grasp (suggesting that the object is now mine in the literal or figurative sense) than I comprehend the nature and significance of a phenomenon or message. The briefest survey of other languages shows that words for observing (seeing) and seizing (grasping) are often used to express the ideas of comprehension and acquiring knowledge. The idea of “understanding” may also come from “separation”: we sift a mass of things and by sifting discern what they are made of (discern, from Old French, ultimately from Latin dis-cernere, is “to separate”). Icelandic skilja means both “split; separate” and “understand.” Eng. skill, a borrowing from Scandinavian, and Engl. shell, a native word, have the same root as skilja. (According to the well-known rule, Scandinavian sk- corresponds to Engl. sh-.) Gothic, a Germanic language whose records date to the 4th century CE, employed the simplest means for coining the verb of understanding: it is related to the adjective for “wise.” But in English, German, Dutch, and Frisian stand is the core of the verb that interests us. English has understand, whereas its German counterpart is verstehen (similarly Dutch and Frisian).
If we disregard the situation of eavesdropping (“eaves-dropping”), how does standing under anything contribute to becoming more enlightened? Pairs like vote out ~ outvote are plentiful, but they are different from understand because stand under is a meaningless phrase without an object. In other cases, verbs with prefixes as their first elements have survived in Modern English only in the form of present and past participles, such as downtrodden and forthcoming (there are no verbs forthcome and downtread). To be sure, the transitive verb stand exists (for instance, the child was stood in the corner, stand the ladder against the wall, and so forth), but even if we assume that understand arose as stand under, with the transitive stand, we will still be in the dark about the meaning of the whole. In any case, stand never meant “separate.” The greatest trouble is that we do not know when the verb understand was coined. It emerged in written texts in 888 (understandan ~ understondan), and it may have been a brand-new formation at that time or the continuation of a verb that had exited for centuries. Only one thing is clear: under- is not an indispensable prefix in it; variants of the prefix for-, as in German, Dutch, and Frisian, and the synonyms in Old English, to be discussed below, do the work equally well (the sense of German verstehen is in no way different from that of Engl. understand).
Adverbs and prepositions often behave in an unpredictable way. For example, if we did not know what overlook and oversee mean, we would not be able to guess which means what. In German, one verb, corresponding to Engl. oversee, covers both senses, and only the context brings clarity to each situation. The same is true of many more subtle differences that cannot be expressed in other languages. In the library and at the library, above the river and over the river are two random examples of such small but important differences. Naturally, the statue of Oscar Wilde’s Happy Prince stood high above the city, even if it towered over it, but in translating this sentence into German or Russian, the distinction will be lost. So the question arises about the meaning of under- in understand.
This prefix can mean not only “beneath, lower than” but also “between, among.” The examples from English are not many. Under the circumstances (under such conditions) is perhaps the only persuasive one. In German, unter vier Augen (literally “between four eyes”) and unter uns mean “among ourselves,” but unter uns may be a translation loan (or calque, to use a more technical term) of French entre nous. In Old English, only one incontestable instance of under “between” has been found. Standing between may signify “choosing from between or among things,” which comes close to the idea of separating and understanding. One can also cite Latin intelligere “understand” (from inter-ligere “lie among”) and superstitio “superstition” (with its reference to a position “above”—a much discussed noun) as words in which “lying” and “standing among/over” acquired figurative meanings. There are other such in Greek. But considering how rarely under “among” occurred in Old English, an etymology based on it would be adventurous. Prefixes in Old English vary as capriciously as roots do. Forstandan had a synonym understandan (so that the difference between for- and under- did not affect the meaning of the verbs), but forgitan meant “forget,” while undergi(e)tan was a synonym of understandan “understand” (now for- and under- appear to be antonyms).
It is the abundance of synonyms that gives a clue to the origin of understand. In Modern English, understand has no neutral synonyms at all. I don’t understand Faroese cannot be replaced with I don’t grasp Faroese. The elevated comprehend and fathom are fit for limited situations. In Old English the picture was different. There, beside understandan, we find forstandan, underniman undergetan, and underthencan (niman, getan, and thencan meant “take,” “get,” and “think” respectively; for th there was a special letter), all meaning the same. Undertake still exists but with a different meaning. The others have dropped out of the language, whereas the simplexes get and think are very much alive, and I don’t get you may mean “I don’t understand you.” Niman has disappeared, and only the words nimble and numb remind us of the root from which it was derived. Forstandan is reminiscent of its twins in German, Dutch and Frisian. Although the five Old English verbs were not always interchangeable (some had their preferred dialectal distribution), speakers of that epoch seem to have been searching for the best word to express what has finally become understand. This is why, with all the caution needed in such cases, we may perhaps conclude that understandan was not an ancient verb inherited from Indo-European or Proto-Germanic antiquity. As noted, its first occurrence in texts goes back to 888. Perhaps the verb is not much older. Given such synonyms as underg(i)etan and forstandan, the blend understandan may have arisen easily (a blend is a word like motel, brunch, or Billary). And this is what probably happened. Forstandan must have meant “stand in front” (and by doing so, get to the bottom of things or getting on top of them, if you will).
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to email@example.com; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”