The power of sitting

The Monitor's language columnist is surprised to realize just how many words are based on the idea of sitting.

Maybe it's just that I'm in the final stages of a big project that's demanded a lot of application of the seat of the pants to the seat of the chair.

But I find that lately I've been collecting, along with empty coffee mugs and miscellaneous notes to self on scraps of paper, a lot of words with something in common: an underlying metaphor of sitting.

I've appreciated lately just how important sitting really is. The long march, the upward climb, the outward voyage aren't just actions. They're key metaphors of life. But sitting, hey, that's where a lot of work gets done, too.

Sit, as an ordinary English verb, is one of our familiar German-derived irregular, or "strong," verbs. Sit, sat, sat are the principal parts, as we used to say in English class. Anyone can spell sit. Its uses, even in idioms, are still pretty literal. A sitting judge does a lot of actual sitting in the courtroom. One sits out a dance. People sit exams, in international English anyway, in actual chairs. Last December, China Daily ran a headline: "770,000 sit exams for government jobs." (A mere 13,500 were to be accepted. The Chinese civil service sounds as hard to get into as Harvard.)

Most of my "sitting" words derive from Latin. One of my favorites, however, is German: Sitzfleisch. It signals endurance, not that of the long-distance runner but of the long-haul sitter.

I first learned the term in a political context. It can refer to the civil servant or the diplomat who sticks it out at the conference table hour after hour after lesser folk have gone home. The one with Sitzfleisch will end up with the bill or the treaty that he or she really wants.

Wiktionary ascribes to the mathematician Frank Vigor Morley this definition of Sitzfleisch: "a term used in chess to indicate winning by use of the glutei muscles – the habit of remaining stolid in one's seat hour by hour, making moves that are sound but uninspired, until one's opponent blunders through boredom."

"Assiduous" gets at this idea. (No, it's not a kind of tree.) It comes from the Latin assidere, meaning "to sit down to" something. It suggests the nerdy student perpetually cramming, or the faithful civil servant ever on post.

A similar-sounding, and related, "sitting" word with a very different meaning is "insidious." It comes from a Latin word meaning deceitful. Insidious means "beguiling but harmful," or may refer to that which works or spreads in a hidden, usually injurious, way.

But "insidious" has to my ear an undertone of persistence, of being hard to prevent or eradicate. So it was satisfying to confirm that it, too, is a "sitting" word. That Latin word for "deceitful" comes from a word referring to a snare or an ambush. This term, in turn, comes from the verb insidere, meaning "to sit on" or "occupy." An "insidious suggestion," thus, is one that just takes up residence in your thinking. It comes in, pulls up a chair, and sits down.

Speaking of pulling up a chair, "obsess" does that, too. It meant originally "to besiege," or more literally "to sit opposite to." It rather suggests a groupie who camps out at the gate of her hero's house. It comes from the Latin ob, meaning "against" and sedere, "to sit."

I hope all this shows I haven't been falling down on my job as a words nerd. I've been sitting on it – assiduously.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.