What Have I Become?: The Story of Come and Become

Have you ever thought about the similarity between the words come and become? It’s something I’ve considered from time to time, as students occasionally get them confused. It struck me again recently, when I considered the similarity between the French translations of I come (Je viens) and I become (Je deviens). Other European languages demonstrate similar, uh, similarities, though not quite so… similar. This strengthened my opinion that there might be a conceptual link between the two.

They might not seem similar used in a standard fashion, but think of some of the phrases we use with come. You can come around to someone’s way of thinking, come round after being unconscious, come up with a plan, or come into your own. When we want someone to come around to our point of view, we tell them to come on! In some general sense, each one of those has a sense of progress, of transitioning from at least one state or situation to another, just like the word become.

And the etymology backs up my meandering musings. To become is indeed a compound of be and come, first showing up in an early Proto-Germanic form in the 13th century, and meaning to come to a place. It’s not much of a stretch for this to evolve to the modern meaning of become. Just like how we think about distance, the concept of movement is a flexible one, useful not only to refer to actual movement through space. When something becomes something else, we think of it as moving (or coming/going) from one state to another. We still say we’re moved when something affects us deeply. It wasn’t too long ago that it was normal to say one was transported when one had an exceptionally strong emotional reaction.

You could look at this in a negative way and say that English is limited, using reductive concepts to refer to more abstract elements of the universe that are difficult to comprehend. But I think it’s impressive, and a sign of our ingenuity. We can sense things, emotions and abstract ideas, which are difficult to pin down and identify clearly. But rather than give up, and stop think about them, we take the way we see the world around us, and basic aspects of that physical world such as movement and distance, and use those concepts to refer to that fundamental something we’ve recognised at the heart of these more intangible concepts. Is there a more becoming illustration of our ability to make sense of the world, and ourselves?

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