linguistics and lexicography Love English

Inspiring etymology

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.

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About the author


Stan Carey

Stan Carey is a freelance editor, proofreader and writer from the west of Ireland. Trained as a scientist and TEFL teacher, he writes about language, words, books and more on Sentence first, Macmillan Dictionary Blog and elsewhere. He tweets at @StanCarey.


  • Very interesting and relevant also to other languages.
    In Italian, the verb traspirare and the noun traspirazione also come to mind (traspirazione eccessiva is the marketing term for sweat), but I suspect that the equivalent English words, transpire and transpiration, are more formal and less frequently used.

  • nice post Stan – and of course the very physical act of breathing in (‘inspiration’) can have linguistic significance too, that sharp intake of breath which can mean, ‘oh my God’, ‘Wow!’, ‘that’s fantastic/awful ….’ and a whole other host of things depending on the context …

  • … and of course also the act of breathing out (‘expiration’), which represents an expression of relief, tiredness, exasperation …

  • Licia: That is the case, to an extent: transpiration is used mainly in technical contexts (again, I used it regularly when studying botany, and hardly ever since); transpire is quite common in one of its later, figurative guises, meaning “occur” or “happen”.

    Kerry: Very true, and I’m glad this came up in the comments. I find gasp a wonderfully evocative word for what you describe.

  • Licia: your comment reminds me of a story, possibly apocryphal, about the film star Rita Hayworth. When told by the director of photography that the star was sweating and that this could be seen on film, the director Orson Welles allegedly replied: “Horses sweat, gentlemen perspire, Miss Hayworth glows.” True or not, it shows a nice understanding of pragmatics.

  • The “don’t breathe a word” is a funny one Stan. I remember it from many years ago when it was said if a secret was shared that was earth-shatteringly private..I always hated the responsibility, maybe brought about from recollections of Peter Pan – in the Neverland, every time you breathe, a grown-up dies.

  • Helen: It’s a beguiling phrase, more interesting than it might seem at first, I think. I don’t remember that (or much else) from Peter Pan – one to revisit, but don’t hold your breath.

  • A very interesting post: it’s so fascinating to see the route words follow having their origin in a nowadays ‘dead’ language but them still surviving and taking on different meanings according to context and usage.
    My native language is Greek and there are so many words which have been ‘lent’ to Latin from ancient Greek and then again these words have come back to the greek language in a somewhat different form as a loan from Latin!

  • Thanks, Konstantia. I agree: some languages that are no longer in use enjoy a hidden, modest afterlife of sorts through their effects on active languages. And it’s very interesting to follow the paths words take from one language to another – and sometimes back again in a new guise, as you say.

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