Big Boing theory
Dear Word Detective: Several times while reading Percy Greg’s Across the Zodiac (1880), I noticed that he “pressed a spring” to activate some function of his space ship. Then I noticed that E.C. Bentley made a similar usage in his detective story, Trent’s Own Case (1936) (“Perhaps,” Trent hazarded, “from your special knowledge of our friend’s character you may be able to lay your hand on the spring of such unaccountable behavior.”). After only 55 years, the meaning seems to have become metaphorical. So what’s the history of using “spring” to mean a lever or knob with a spring in its mechanism? — Ken Landaiche.
I’ve never read “Across the Zodiac,” a story about a trip to Mars, but I may, since it’s available online at Project Gutenberg (www.gutenberg.org, e-text number 10165). I do remember, as a child, reading many stories written during the same period that involved a character “pressing a spring” that would activate some hidden mechanism in a way that bespoke an enormously complex and clever bit of engineering behind the scenes. Whether it set into motion a diabolical engine like the ones in Poe’s “The Pit and the Pendulum” or merely opened the trap door upon which the hero of a tale happened to be standing, I found such purely mechanical devices far more fascinating than the electronic and computerized gizmos of today. I’d definitely be more interested in modern robots if you wound them up with a big key.
Both the noun “spring” and the verb “to spring” come from Germanic roots with the general sense of “rapid movement.” The noun “spring” (which is our focus here) was used in Old English to mean the pace where water “springs,” or rises forth (often quite rapidly) from the ground. By the mid-13th century, “spring” (sometimes “wellspring”) was being used in a figurative sense to mean “the source or origin of things or persons” (“Language reveals the deepest springs of thought,” 1892).
“Spring” went on to acquire a vast array of meanings, some clearly related to the idea of a “spring” in the ground, others embodying the “rapid movement” sense of the word’s roots. A bit of both ended up giving us “spring” (originally “spring of the year”) as the name of the season of new growth in the 16th century.
Meanwhile, back at the “rapid movement” sense of “spring,” we began to use the word to mean “a leap or bound” or, by extension, “liveliness,” as in “a spring in your step.” This “quick, lively movement” gave us, in the 15th century, “spring” as a name for, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “An elastic contrivance or mechanical device, usually consisting of a strip or plate of steel (or a number of these) suitably shaped or adjusted, which, when compressed, bent, coiled, or otherwise forced out of its normal shape, possesses the property of returning to it.” The wide use of such “springs” in machinery of the day then led to the use of “spring” to mean “that by which an action is instigated or actuated,” which brings us to the “spring” (or switch attached to a spring) that Percy Greg pressed in his spaceship.
It is, however, as the OED itself notes, sometimes impossible to determine whether it’s “spring” in this “something that starts a process” sense being used or whether we are seeing the separate sense of “point or origin; source” mentioned earlier. I’d say the spaceship use is definitely the “push here” sense because it’s so clearly referring to an actual mechanical device. But the quotation from E.C. Bentley (“… you may be able to lay your hand on the spring of such unaccountable behavior”) sounds to me to be using “spring” in the “source or origin” sense of the word. In any case, it’s not often that the literal and the metaphorical senses of a word circle around and converge so neatly that you can’t tell them apart.