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Verbal Energy

Undisturbed amid what we know of turmoil

A look at turmoil, turbulence, and tumult and other words for ‘trouble’: Do they share common roots – or just closely related meanings?

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It is the best of times, and it is the worst of times, as Dickens would have agreed, had he been following the same news feed as the rest of us. Here in New England we’ve been enjoying a glorious summer that promises to go into extra innings, perhaps as a kind of war reparations from the weather gods after this past winter.

But we’re also following fires and floods out West as well as the worst refugee crisis in Europe since World War II, plus the wars and terrorism that are turning people into refugees in the first place. 

Is it any wonder I’ve wanted to learn more about the word turmoil?

Scholars, alas, are uncertain about its derivation. But its meaning is clear: “A state of confusion or disorder,” to cite Merriam-Webster. And turmoil shows up as part of the definition for a gaggle of “t” words related in meaning, even if not in etymology.

Puzzling over these has reminded me of two young ladies, evidently from Australia, whom I had an opportunity to study in a slow-moving passport line during my late-summer travels: Are they actually sisters, or do they just spend so much time together that they dress alike and move alike and perhaps, to infer from the steady forward gaze they both seemed to maintain, even think alike?

Back to etymology. There’s turbulent, a go-to adjective for the stock market of late, rooted in a Latin word turba, meaning crowd or turmoil. There’s an idea of “spinning” in there, too, as of a top. Turbulence has meant “atmospheric eddies that affect airplanes,” as the Online Etymology Dictionary explains, since 1918.

The same root shows up in turbid, “muddy, full of confusion.” Disturb is another word in this group. Dis often means “not,” as in dishonest. But it can also serve as an intensifier, “utterly” or “completely.” To be “disturbed” is, etymologically, to be utterly confused by a tumultuous crowd.

Ah, tumultuous – another “t” word. The Online Etymology Dictionary traces this adjective to a Latin equivalent meaning “full of bustle or confusion, disorderly, turbulent.” And if turbulence is rooted in notions of “spinning” and “confusion,” tumultuous is rooted in the idea of “swelling.”

Turmoil itself? The Oxford English Dictionary cites a theory that it’s a borrowing from the Old French tremouille, a mill hopper. 

The Online Etymology Dictionary notes that the French word is thought to derive from the Latin trimodia, an adjective signifying a capacity of three measures. 

The measure of capacity, it seems, became the name of the thing, as when people sometimes refer to a light-duty pickup truck as “a half-ton.” The term indicates payload, not vehicle weight.

The shape of the hopper – narrower at the bottom – means that the grains fed in jump or “hop” around, jostling for position. 

Please excuse the anthropomorphism. But if the mill-hopper theory is correct, this is what creates “turmoil.”

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