At the cusp of being known

Intimate comes from the Latin Intimare, which translates as “to make known, to announce,” or “to impress.” As a noun, intimate means a “familiar person,” or “a piece of womens’ underwear.” As a verb, it means to “make known formally,” or to “suggest indirectly.” As an adjective, it means “closely acquainted, inmost,” or “intrinsic.”

It is a word that--ironically--struggles with intimacy. It deals with closeness, but can’t decide just how close. Something intrinsic is very different than something closely related--in fact, the barrier between ‘in’ and ‘out’ is absolute, not relative. So in a way, this tension of intimacy as being something that has crossed that threshold versus something that brushes the outer edge of it is oxymoronic. In simple terms: if you are intimate, are you in, or are you out, trying to get in?

Perhaps we can better understand the nature of the word by stepping back to ask an open-ended question: what do we mean when we claim to be intimate with someone or something?

The most likely response is to reference closeness. To be intimate is to be close. This aligns with the noun definitions: a piece of underwear is close to the innermost or most private part of the self. A familiar person is familiar but other (by nature of being someone else). These usages fall firmly within the definitional sphere of ‘outside.’ They respect the barrier between ourselves, others, and the world. Intimacy is a mark of moving through the distance up to the barrier. It is about getting as close as possible. 

But how is this closeness actualized? Here we turn to the first verbal root: “to make known, to announce, to impress.” The construction of these verbs gives us a hint via the necessary subject: intimacy arises from making ourselves known, or from announcing ourselves. In other words, intimacy isn’t created by the receiver crossing distance towards us. Its genesis is instead internal--we narrow that distance by announcing ourselves. We catapult ourselves towards the receiver through making ourselves known. 

If we look at the word that way, we have come full circle back to the curious and seemingly paradoxical definition of ‘intrinsic.’ Intimacy, etymologically, seems to understand that no amount of talking, time, or action can actually break the membrane between one autonomous being and another, but that what is going on in that ever-so-close state are two ‘intrinsic’ forces surging with all their might at one another, held--like two opposing batteries under intense force--at the cusp of merging.


The summer of my sophomore year in college, I took an immersive ten week course in Latin in midtown Manhattan. The days were long--at least sixteen hours, often more--and the building had few windows. It is perhaps because of the close, fluorescent-lit environment that I remember the etymology of temple so vividly. 

Temple comes from the Latin templum, meaning “piece of ground consecrated for the taking of auspices, building for worship of a god.” It’s root likely goes to the PIE *tem- (to cut), or possibly to *temp- (to stretch). I don’t know if the story I heard--which links the root of temple to the practice of augury--is factually verified, but it’s a beautiful story to ponder regardless. 

As I heard it, Roman Augures (people who based prophecies on bird watching) would go out on a hill and draw (in their mind’s eye), a square in the sky. They would watch that square all day for birds, and make interpretations based upon the behavior of the birds. This act of delineating a patch of the sky, of cutting out a special piece of space, flowed into the concept of temple. 

What I love about this story is that it illuminates so clearly how strange and wondrous our act of making sacred is. It’s odd enough to try to wrap our heads around a physical area being consecrated (why build a temple in one place versus another?), but to imagine that act happening in the sky is magical on an entirely different level. We associate the sky with the ephemeral, with what is (literally) beyond us. It’s a convenient and logical place for gods to live, or for after-life realms to be housed. I think the reason it’s by nature such a spiritual space is because of how Other it is to our earthly experience. Whereas we live out a material and finite existence, closely tied to and dependent upon what we can touch, consume, and find shelter beneath, the sky is the realm of the ‘non’ material, where clouds gather and dissipate, light magically appears, and infinity lurks. 

I believe that we invest the sky with the spiritual--we are only able to invest the sky with the spiritual--because while we are primarily ensconced in a finite existence, we do experience at least a taste of the infinite. When we think about our self, our soul--whatever you want to call it--we intuitively sense that we aren’t fully limited to the bodily, that there is something more to us. That is what makes us look to the sky, or to the spiritual space more generally. If we were entirely finite, it wouldn’t occur to us to look to the realm of the infinite. If we were entirely infinite, we wouldn’t need to look to it. It is because of our middle position, our being caught between heaven and earth, that we are moved to usher the sacred into our lives. 

Back to bird watching. How does one keep their eyes fixed on a square in the sky all day? Given the changing nature of the sky, it seems to me that looking away even for a moment--even just blinking--would make a return to that exact patch almost impossible.

But perhaps that’s not the point. Perhaps Augures were more than aware that the exact location of the square would inevitably shift throughout the day, and that the act of making sacred through ‘cutting’ would always exist in a tenuous balance between what is inside and outside.

Perhaps they understood that the need to make sacred is a strange and beautiful characteristic of the way humans are constructed, and that at the end of the day it’s less important what or where something is created, but the act of giving attention to it in the first place. 


The artist's task

The first etymology I ever wrote about was the word ‘manipulate.’ I was a senior in college, and I spent the final three months of the semester sleeping on the couch of two close friends that lived near campus. One of my friends was studying design, and was already starting to be recognized for her outsized talent. Accordingly, she had been nominated for a fellowship, and needed to write an artist’s statement. 

Somehow (the details escape me now), the focus of the statement centered around the word manipulate. I was in the midst of studying Latin, and I immediately recognized the root of manus, or hand. The recognition sparked an opening in my consciousness, the flash of delight and curiosity that for me so often arrives with diving into a word and then returning to the world with a slightly altered lens. We went downstairs to get Sapporo’s and gummies, and then spent hours discussing it. 

Manipulate comes from the Latin Manus (hand) + Plere (to fill). This creates manipulus (handful, sheath, bundle), and later the French Manipule (handful). Today, its primary definition is still to “handle in a technical or skillful way,” but its secondary, and far more used definition, is to “control or influence in an unfair, clever, or unscrupulous way.” 

How do some words, with seemingly innocent or innocuous origins, come to have negative underlying associations? And what does filling your hands have to do with maliciously influencing others?

An interesting entry point is to think about humans’ mixed relationship to hands. On the one hand (pardon the pun), we recognize hands (specifically opposable thumbs) as what delineate us from the animal kingdom. They enable us to hold tools, shape weapons, and eat in a more efficient way. Hands fundamentally alter how we navigate the world. This is not limited just to survival, but also to identity construction. Hands make the creation of art possible. They also enable us to hold another person’s hand. 

But there’s a flip side to this. Hands elevate us from our roots, from the perimeters of animal behavior. They pose the issue of potentiality: when we are free to do more, what will we do with that freedom? 

The choice in how we enact our ‘human-ness’ can be further examined through another Latin etymology about hands: dextra and sinistra. Dextra means right hand, while sinistra means left hand. Sinistra is the root for our word ‘sinister.’ Let’s set aside, for the moment, the problematic history of condemning left handed people and instead consider the convenient implications of morally splitting the body. 

By doing this, we get a neat, binary distinction. Hands are endowed with our human power and potential, but the fact that we have two of them gives us a physical embodiment of choice. Will we use that power in the ‘right’ way, or in a sinister way? 

It seems, given our contemporary associations with the word manipulate, that we’ve come to err on the side of suspicion. The filling of hands, the manipulation of material, thought, or feeling, has a negative ring to it. But this need only be the case if we start from a place of assuming the desire to alter something is negative. When we look at the artist’s task, specifically, isn’t manipulate the perfect word for what we do? Isn’t it true that only by gathering and transforming via artistry the raw material of experience, observation and the physical world that we are able to derive something from it? 

In that sense, don’t we manipulate in order to see more clearly?

PS--the art accompanying this post was supplied by none other than the friend with whom I originally discussed the word. Enjoy, and please check out her prolific and ever-impressive career at



How do we set and disrupt our direction?

Sometimes words are interesting because their roots are abstract, and sometimes they’re interesting because their original meaning is so literal. Disorient belongs to this second category. It comes from the French désorienter, which means “to cause to lose one’s bearings,” or more literally, “to turn from the east.”

The reference to east points back to the Latin Oriri, which makes up ‘orient’ and means ‘to rise.’ Orientation, our sense of grounded-ness in direction, comes from knowing the sun rises in the east. Witnessing the consistency of natural phenomena orients us. 

At the base of the word is a naturalistic understanding of the world and how we operate in it. It ties our wellbeing to a connection with nature. Though ‘orient’ comes to signify the far east, it is not first the far east and all the images we now associate with it, but simply the place in which the sun rises. When we know where we are in relation to the sun’s journey, our own journey is also given direction. 

Fast forward to the modern usage of ‘disorient’ or ‘disoriented,’ and we see very little connection with the natural world. The literal definition is “having lost one’s sense of direction,” or “confused and unable to think clearly.” Yes, we can still be physically disoriented--for instance, upon landing in a foreign country--but we tend to use it more to express a mental, spiritual, or emotional disorientation. To have your heart broken disorients. To lose a job, or fight with a friend, disorients us. What it shares with its etymological roots is the sense of there being a rupture in how things ought to be, an unwelcome disturbance in the linear progression we’ve imagined for the future and presumed would unfold accordingly. We are disoriented when the world doesn’t line up with our image of the world. 

We can also be disoriented in relationship to ourselves. This is possible because of the twoness (or more) of self: that we are always what we are and also what we are telling ourselves about what we are. Sometimes these versions of self run close to one another, sometimes at odd angles. When they veer off, they can lay trip wires that leave us disoriented. 

What I find comforting is how ancient and timeless the best methods for re-orienting self are. A return to our breath. Paying attention to the natural world around us. Reconnecting with, as the cliche goes, “what really matters.” If we stray too far from these things for too long, it’s no wonder we become disoriented. But our straying doesn’t threaten their reality: what grounds us, what orients, is consistent and present, if we are willing and brave enough to return to it. 

Words by Finnegan Shepard: www.finneganshepard.omc

Images by Bella Porter:


Is a gap an absence?

As some of you have noticed (and prodded me about), there’s been a bit of a break in Limns posts. However, don’t fret! Limns will be continuing in a slightly different format—stay tuned to see. In the meantime, I thought this would be an appropriate moment to pontificate briefly on the word ‘hiatus.’

Hiatus comes from the PIE root *ghieh, “to yawn, gape, be wide open.” It travels through Latin to becomes Hiatus, in this sense meaning “aperture, opening, rupture, or gap.” The meaning we have today, of ‘taking a break’, developed later, in the 17th century. If you look it up, you will find an exquisite definition from that time period:

“[the] space from which something requisite to completeness is absent."

Here are the questions this etymology leaves me with:

What is the connective tissue between the verbal meaning of “gaping wide open,” the noun meaning of “gap or opening” and the sense of “taking leave, temporarily, from something”?

The philosophical question I see is: why do we assume that what exists on the other side of an opening, gap, or rupture, shares continuity with what came before?

Why are we so attached to wholeness? When we look at the 17th century definition, we see hiatus as that which disrupts completeness. But isn’t it also true that absence is a kind of presence, albeit of something else? Isn’t the question of completeness dependent on where in space and time you stand to judge it?

Put another way, haven’t we all experienced a greater sense of understanding by leaving something, just so that we can return?

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