TNQDE: In a Word, Hedonism

During my morning and afternoon book clubs, I ask my kids to listen for words they don’t know. At the end of our read-aloud, we choose an unfamiliar word for our word wall and spend some time trying to understand its meaning. Monday morning, the word was “relish,” as in, “Character X rubbed her hands with relish.” I had a tough time convincing the kids that the character was not covering her hands with a therapeutic hot-dog condiment, which got me wondering about how the word came to be used as it is.


The A.H.C.D. sent me on a bit of a rabbit chase with this etymology, which is almost always as enlightening as it is entertaining. Most modernly, the word comes from the Middle English reles, meaning “taste.” That’s easy enough to understand–relish in its most corporeal form is something that adds taste to food. Likewise, from that, we can abstract the meaning for relish as something connected to life in general having flavor. No prob, Bob. No problem for me to mentally justify, anyway, even if my kids are still young enough to find such an abstraction a little tricky to follow.

Where the etymology gets interesting is the level older than reles, which is the Old French version of the word meaning “something remaining,” which is derived from the Old French verb relaisser: “to leave behind.” Taste, as seen in relish, is then that hint of something different, of something else that has touched on the bigger, blander object which needs to be flavored. Fascinating, I think, but the etymology doesn’t stop there: it says “See Release.” In dictionary parlance, this means that the etymology for “release” will contain more pertinent information because the two words come from the same roots.

S.V. “release,” we discover that  the Old French verb relaisser is an alteration of the verb relacher, which stems from the Latin verb relaxare. The connection between “to leave behind” and the modern meaning of the verb “to release” is obvious, but what about this connection to the Latin verb? The dictionary doesn’t give as a meaning to hang onto, but instead says (can you guess?) “See Relax.”

Ignoring the various alterations relaxare has gone through to become the modern verb “to relax,” we can jump straight to the oldest form and see how the meaning of relaxare was broken down in Latin. You already know “re-” from my last post, so we’ll go straight to laxare. It means “to loosen.” That’s a sense that has survived the ages. “Loosen up” is just another way of saying “relax,” right? Without lowering myself to jokes about bodily functions, the parallel meaning is preserved in medical jargon as well, though thank goodness there’s been enough transformation in the word “relish” that we don’t use the same word to talk about flavoring out food that we use to talk about the ease of… well, you get the picture.

It’s easy to trace the shift of the meaning of “relish” through minor transitivity shifts and small connotative reconfigurations. When something is loosened, something of the loose substance can be left behind. In the act of spicing food, we leave a small bit of some loose substance behind. Because the food so endowed with said loose substance is improved, it gives us greater pleasure, making the quality of its improvement something we can generalize to discuss our experience of life in general. Oddly enough, the word comes full circle to have a meaning that is philosophically entangled with the notion of relaxation.

Letting go is the spice of life. Let’s relax and relish it.


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