Word roots and routes: spirePosted by Jonathan Marks on March 10, 2014
The saying ‘Genius is one per cent inspiration, ninety-nine per cent perspiration‘ is attributed to Thomas Edison, inventor of the phonograph, the movie camera and the electric light bulb. I can’t verify those percentages, but I do know that twenty per cent of the words in the saying are members of a set of English words derived from Latin spīritus (breath) and spīrāre (breathe).
The process of breathing is a sign of life and is, with due attention, observable, but its effects generally aren’t, except in cold weather, when breath condenses in air or on windows. The word spirit is used to refer to a wide range of intangible and not directly observable notions such as soul, supernatural being, ghost, essence, vital or activating principle (e.g. team spirit, the spirit of democracy), mood or attitude (e.g. in high spirits, lift someone’s spirits). The image of a spirit as a life-giving breath appears in the well-known final sentence of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry’s novel Terre des Hommes: ‘Only the Spirit, if it breathes upon the clay, can create Man.’
Spirits are also alcoholic drinks in which the essence, or soul, of the raw ingredients they are distilled from has been captured and bottled.
If you aspire to achieve something, you ‘breathe upon’ it, or try to reach it.
To expire is to ‘breathe out’ and, especially, to breathe out for the last time. The expiry date of your passport is the date when it breathes its last, and becomes void.
When you feel inspired to do something, it’s as if an influence from some mysterious, invisible source ‘breathes into’ you.
To perspire was originally to ‘blow or breathe constantly’ or to ‘blow through’. It then developed the meaning of passing through, or escaping, in the form of vapour, and then of escaping by evaporation. Its present use as a polite alternative to sweat is a narrowing of this latter meaning.
To respire was originally to ‘breathe again’, then to ‘breathe in and out’, and finally to breathe, generally.
Transpire has travelled a longer distance from its original meaning, which was similar to perspire: to pass through in the form of a vapour or liquid. It now means to take place or happen, though the earlier meaning survives as a specialised biological term.
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