My old blog, the Word of the Day, is defunct, and I’m getting ready to take it down. Before I do, though, I’m going to repost some of the best words here over the next few weeks. Enjoy!
Sphere comes from the beautiful Greek word sphaira, which meant “globe” or “ball”. By the time it entered Middle English around 1300, it was spelled spere and referred only to the crystalline sphere believed to surround the world. By 1390, its meaning had extended to its original and modern sense. In Shakespeare’s time, when spellings were becoming standardized, the “h” was added back in and the pronunciation changed to reflect its distinguished Greek pedigree.
Sphere is a ball of energy. It starts with directed energy (”s”) that is completely free (”f”) — perhaps indicating that it can go in all three dimensions. The energy continues for an extended period (long “e”) with great force (”r”). The sound of the word sphere thus seems to imply expansion.
Spirit is from Proto Indo European peis or speis, meaning “to blow”. Interestingly, PIE had three other words homophonous with peis, one meaning “to crush”, another meaning “fish”, and a third meaning “weight”; whether these roots were related to “to blow” is unknown. In any case, it descended into Latin as the verb spirare, “to breathe”, which gave us transpire, expire, aspire, conspire, inspire, and others.
In Classical (pre-imperial or pagan) Latin, the usual word for “soul” or “spirit” was animus (or female anima); but as Christianity spread during the imperial period, the word spiritus became more common because it appeared in the Latin Bible as the translation of the Greek pneuma, “breath, spirit”, which in turn was a translation of the Hebrew ruah, “breath, spirit”. Thus a Hebrew metaphor equating breath and spirit was carried forward in the Greek and Latin translations. English Bibles, however, did not translate spiritus as breath — they simply borrowed spiritus as spirit (or, occasionally, used the word ghost, which did not preserve the metaphor).
Spirit begins with strong energy emerging from a point, moving a long distance down a path with stamina and great force. The meaning here is clearest if it’s kept in mind that the primary syllable of spirit is identical with that of spear. Spirit’s second syllable, however, extends the meaning by indicating that the result of the forceful, directed energy is a light upward movement along an open path. Together, the sounds of spirit indicate the tremendous force that Spirit can exert on our lives, as well as the gentler light, upward motion it engenders in quieter moments; but in either case the energy and the movement are directed, moving us forward inexorably.
From Proto Indo European stai, meaning “stone” — this word has been as rock-steady as a chunk of granite. In Proto Germanic it was already stainaz (the -az ending being just the nominative singular marker), and in Old English, stan.
Its sound, however, gives the impression of energy swirling around a fixed presence. “st” is directed energy flowing along a path; the energy is earthy and solid (long “o”), and with “n”, it is directed and narrowed towards a goal. It is strange to have so much direction and motion associated with stone, despite its solid center; but perhaps this indicates that stones are more than what they appear to be at first glance. After all, diamonds and other crystals, which certainly act as conduits for energy of all sorts, are called stones, as well.