Don’t Sweat It

Posted in Figuratively Speaking at 8:24 am by Marion


In honor of summer’s crest in the days ahead, today Figuratively Speaking sweats it out.

As a girl my mom barred certain words from my language — she required me to say “smells bad” instead of “stink,” for instance.

Among the banned words was “sweat.” So if I ever got worked up as a child, I perspired.

Her prejudice says a lot about the difference between these two terms. You can see those differences in their origins, as well.

Perspire has a delightful French air to it — and belongs in the dignified word family that includes “inspire.”

Perspire derives from the Latin spirare, or “breathe.” From there, it goes through the 17th-century words “perspirer” from the Latin “per” (through) plus “spirare” (breathe). There is a sense of breath coming through.

Now then, we have sweat. As is so often the case, words with a coarser sense come from our good German and Dutch friends. Not sure why that’s the case — maybe it’s because their words have a more guttural, gruff tonality.

Sweat comes from the old English word swat, which comes from the German swaetan, related to the Dutch zweet and German Schweiss. There is an Indo-European root back there somewhere … sudor.

Nothing about that word evokes the lofty act of breathing, as does perspire. And, really why not use that word instead? Perspire captures what it means to be human: to live by the results of our work.

Or, as some may say, By the sweat of our brow.

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