For most years of the past quarter century, my Christmas season has opened with the Handel & Haydn Society's presentation of Handel's "Messiah" at Symphony Hall in Boston. The opening aria is the familiar text from Isaiah, "Comfort ye, comfort ye my people."
By the time the first of December rolls around, I'm often really in need of that "comfort." This year, though, I had enough mental space to wonder a little bit about the word itself. Was the Lord wanting to see His people all cozy on the sofa before the fire with a nice cup of tea, in a Jane Austen sort of way?
Or did He have something else in mind?
The verb has had several different meanings over time. The first meaning, now obsolete, was "to strengthen," from the Latin verb confortare. Notice that second syllable, "fort." It's the same particle you see in words like fortification and forte.
The Coverdale Bible of 1535 quotes King David telling his men, after the death of Saul, "Let youre hande now therfore be comforted, and be ye stronge." Less than a century later, the translators of the King James Version rendered that same passage, "Therefore now let your hands be strengthened, and be ye valiant."
From the late 14th century, comfort came to mean to support or assist, to aid or abet. The verb usage is obsolete, but the concept lives on in the noun phrase "aid and comfort to the enemy," which is a sort of everyman's definition of treason.
John Wycliffe's Bible (1382) used comfort in a sense of physical reinforcement, as in a passage from Psalms in which the Lord "coumfortede the lockis of thi gatis." In 1611, the KJV rendered this one as "he hath strengthened the bars of thy gates."
The Oxford English Dictionary gives as "the current ordinary sense" of the verb "to soothe in grief or trouble; to relieve of mental distress; to console or solace."
The OED further notes that this meaning is often used in the passive. In fact, it's Wycliffe's version of the text of that opening aria from "Messiah" that the OED cites: "Beth comfortid, yee my puple."
While we're doing comparisons, I can't resist adding that the Knox translation, based on the Vulgate, renders the passage, "Take heart again, my people, says your God." That shows the connection to courage – which comes from the Latin for "heart," after all – and relates comfort more to getting back on your horse than wrapping a comfy shawl around your shoulders.
Not until the 19th century, it seems, does the modern sense of physical comfort really settle in. The OED cites John Ruskin writing in 1862 about "things which serve ... to sustain and comfort the body."
In his 1986 book, "Home: A Short History of an Idea," Witold Rybczynski wrote about domestic comfort as an idea that Western civilization came to rather late. It was not self-evident to our distant forebears, for instance, that chair should actually provide comfort, and not just project authority. (Consider a king sitting on a throne surrounded by standing vassals.)
He made the case that many of our ideas about what a "home" should be go back to the Dutch in their 17th-century golden age. A compact, relatively egalitarian republic, with high rates of homeownership and little dependence on servants, the Netherlands was a strong influence on Western concepts of domestic space, light, privacy, intimacy, cleanliness, and ease of care. These ideas spread, notably across the North Sea to Jane Austen's England.
"It is surprising how often one comes across the words 'comfort' and 'comfortable' in Jane Austen's novels," Rybczynski wrote. "She used them in the old sense of support or assistance, but more frequently she intended them to convey a new kind of experience – the sense of contentment brought about by the enjoyment of one's physical surroundings."
Here's wishing you a full range of comforts through this holiday season.