I was thinking about the word forearm yesterday, as I’m sure most of us do in our more pensive moments on a Tuesday evening. I thought about how easy it is to figure out its meaning by looking at the makeup of the word. Fore means front or forward (fore+ward), as we can see in words and phrases like at the forefront, foremost, to the fore, and forehead. And arm means arm.
And then I considered that the word before must also be related to these words. But that didn’t feel quite right…
It was right, of course. Etymology has no regard for our feelings. The word before is a combination of the Proto-Germanic bi (by) and forana (from the front). So of course it is connected to other fore words (but not forewords). The reason it felt odd to me is because I don’t always associate the word before with the concepts of front or forward. In fact, in some ways I associate the word with being behind, even if hind means at the back (think of how we refer to animal’s hind legs).
Or perhaps I should say that I associate the word before with being to the left.
You see, we usually think of time as moving forward along a continuum. Because it’s an abstract concept, we try to visualise time and make it feel concrete. One way we do this is using lots of the same language we use to refer to actual distance. Consider how both of the following questions are perfectly correct:
How long is this film?
How long is this piece of string?
We can also talk about the distant past and the far future. And, perhaps because English speakers write from left to right, we imagine time as a line stretching from left to right. So if something happened before now, it’s to the left of the present on that line.
And that’s where my mind got a little muddled. The fore part of before told me the word should to to be the right of now, forward in time. But of course it refers to the past, or at least one point earlier than another.
There is of course a kind of logic to this. Forget for a moment my left-right timeline. Imagine instead you’re looking directly along that line, towards the future. If one event is before another, it’s closer to you, and from your perspective, it’s in front of the the later event. This is especially true if something’s moving towards you, which is why we talk about bringing or moving events forward when we change them to an earlier date.
Of course, this all also makes more sense when we consider that (as my title indicates) the word before originally referred to position. To stand before someone is to stand in front of them. The word was then adopted, like many other words referring to place and distance, to refer to time.
Crucially though, this probably happened long before reading and writing became common phenomena, and we hadn’t really begun to imagine time as a line going from left to right. Thinking of an earlier event as being in front of a later event probably didn’t seem so strange then.
And to be honest, it may not seem so strange to you either. Sure, I was confuddled a little when I started thinking about it, but I always over think things. Plus, I may be exaggerating how common this left-to-right view of time is by the way, because I’m entirely left-sided.
So if this has only served to confuse you, I stand before you an apologetic man.
8 thoughts on “Is this a Dagger which I See Before me?”
I’m seriously tempted to make this admittedly confusing article a little more confusing myself by drawing your attention to a little word that comes from my neck of the woods and has entered the English vocabulary as well (how original!)
I’m referring to the word προ which also has a double meaning as “before, in front of” and “forward”. Do words like “prophet”, “promote” or “propaganda” ring any bells?
I should probably stop here.
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Interesting, just as we use “pro-” in general as a prefix. At least we’ve got “pre-” to mean “before” so we don’t get too confused!
[…] Niall O’Donnell considers directionality in the English language, and how “before” originally referred to position, not time. Read Is this a Dagger which I see before me? […]
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