Breathing is such an intimate and vital activity that it’s no wonder it shows up in such a range of everyday expressions, including many metaphorical phrases. Witness a breath of fresh air, don’t hold/waste your breath, take your breath away, breathe down someone’s neck, and breathe new life into something.
I especially like Don’t breathe a word. We think of words as things spoken (or written), but of course we cannot speak them without also breathing them. And have you noticed how much more slowly you breathe out when you talk?
Recently I received a spam comment that said: “This web site is my breathing in”. I realised a computer program must have automatically substituted breathing in for its synonym inspiration – it would be unaware that their synonymity makes sense only in certain contexts. There are different kinds of inspire here, etymologically tied but semantically diverged.
In biology studies I used inspire/inspiration and expire/expiration mainly to refer to the passage of air into and out of plants – that is, botanical breathing – but since then I’ve rarely used either word with those senses. Instead, inspiration has the usual meanings of new ideas and creative enthusiasm, while expiration indicates the end of a certain period of time, as in the expiry date of milk or as a formal word for death. (One of very many synonyms for it.)
Both inspiration and expiration originate in Latin spirare “breathe”, with the prefixes in- and ex- specifying the particular action. Both are related to spirit, from Latin spiritus “breath”: this too came from spirare, as did perspiration, respirator and conspiracy. Another term familiar from my student days is respiratory tract: the parts of our bodies involved directly in breathing, including nose, throat, trachea and lungs.
In these related terms there is great variety along the literal–figurative continuum. Sometimes we see it even in the same word: aspiration can refer either to wishes or, more concretely, to audible breath. If you’re aiming for a certain linguistic register, you might aspire to aspirate your (h)aitches.
There are parallels too in the words’ collocations (that is, words that often go together) – we can both draw inspiration and draw breath. Macmillan Dictionary’s definition of inspiration features a box of these collocations, such as the verbs find, provide, seek, and take, and the nouns burst, flash, moment, and spark. The second set evokes the immediacy of inspiration, like a sudden intake of new images, patterns and connections – or breath.Email this Post