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shameless pleading

Bent

It’s not all that “Fancy” anyway. Tastes like Spam.

Dear Word Detective: I’ve been wondering how “bent,” as in “He has a philosophical bent” came to be, as opposed to just calling it a “bend.” Can you offer anything? — Dalton.

Hmm. Hey, how about a nice cat? Everybody likes cats. And, after a while, they bring out your philosophical bent, even if you never thought you had one. There you’ll be, sitting in your cold, dark house, impoverished by vet bills, shunned by friends who have just developed convenient allergies, with both your furniture and your future in tatters. At that moment, when all seems lost, you’ll pause, muse philosophically, and realize that you still have a prize more precious than gold — the knowledge that you have made one small, furry creature very happy. Because it just won a coin flip with you for the last can of Fancy Feast.

Oh, you meant something useful about “bent.” Yeah, no problemo. “Bent” in the sense that you use it in your example is simply a noun formed from the common verb “to bend.” In this sense we use “bent” to mean “mental inclination or tendency; disposition; propensity, bias” (Oxford English Dictionary), as in “Henry was of a numismatic bent, and spent every day collecting coins and bills; it was several years before the police discovered he was getting them from his neighbors’ houses.” As an adjective, “bent” in this sense means “determined to follow a certain course of action or to pursue a certain goal” (“Despite the intense lightning, Trevor was bent on finishing the tennis game, and eventually triumphed over his opponent, the late Victor Nubbin of Dover”).

The story of “bend” goes back to its Germanic root, which was “band” or “bandjan.” This root produced a number of other English words, including “band,” “bind,” “bond” and “bundle,” all of which carry the general sense of “tying something up.” And so, at first, did the English verb “to bend.” In Old English (as “bendan”), and initially in English, “to bend” meant to bind or constrain something very tightly (usually with a “bend,” the noun form then meaning “bond, shackles, fetters, etc.”).

The question that I’m sure has occurred to you by now (because all my readers are of a logical bent) is “So how did this word ‘to bend,’ meaning ‘tie up tightly’ ever come to mean ‘to form into a curve’?” Good question. It appears that, early in the word’s evolution in English, the sense of “to bind tightly” was applied to the process of stringing an archer’s bow, which requires considerable strength and results, of course, in the bow assuming a curved shape. Thus, to cause other things to take the curved shape of a strung bow became to “bend” them and they were thenceforth described as “bent” (the past participle of “to bend”). This sense of “bent” was eventually broadened to include things that were of any arched, angular or crooked shape, not just the gentle curve of a bow, and today “to bend” can apply to any deviation of a thing from its usual axis, such as when we “bend” our knees to pick up something from the floor. “Bend” is also a perfectly fine noun, commonly used to mean a turn or fold in something, such as “a bend in the river.”

Interestingly, the origin of “to bend” in stringing a bow gave us another sense of the word as well, “to bend” meaning “to direct one’s thoughts, energies or actions toward something.” This sense reflects an earlier sense of “to bend” meaning “to aim a weapon,” reflecting the “bending” of a bow to fire an arrow. It is this “directing one’s thoughts and energies” sense of the verb “to bend” that produced the noun “bent” in the sense of “mental inclination or bias.”

The noun “bend” was also briefly used, beginning in the 16th century, to mean “a turn of mind or inclination,” just as we use “bent” today, but that sense of “bend” eventually became obsolete and “bent” took over its job. The reasons “bent” won out over “bend” in meaning “inclination” are a bit hazy, but it seems that “bent” in this sense with its terminal “t” was formed on the model of other English nouns drawn from verbs of Latin or French origin, e.g., “to descend” produced the noun “descent,” “extend” gave us “extent,” etc.

So there’s really no compelling logical reason why we use “bent” for “inclination” instead of “bend.” That’s just the way it turned out, and today we speak of a politician’s larcenous “bent” as he “bends” the ethical rules.

2 comments to Bent

  • graham chambers

    This must explain also why various knots, as learned in the Boy Scouts, are called “bends”, as in “Sheet Bend” or “Fisherman’s Bend.”

  • Mr Funicular

    Actually, knots are purely decorative, such as the “Turk’s Head knot” you might find in the hands of a campagnologist. A knot in a rope does not attach to anything, whereas ‘bends’ and ‘hitches’ are the practical actions we do every day with strings and things … and it would seem that bending my mind to a problem would have far more to do with ‘latching on to it’, than ‘aiming at it’ as in the bow example.

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