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.