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shameless pleading

Intimate / Intimidate

 Separated before birth.

Dear Word Detective:  I heard recently that the words “intimidate” and “intimacy” share a common root meaning. This makes a sort of twisted sense as so many people are timid when it comes to opening themselves up to others, which is required for intimacy. Finding the origins of “intimidate” never caused me any worry, but I could never even get close to “intimacy.” Do fear and closeness go hand in hand? — Shawn.

Um, yes. I mean no. Could you repeat the question? Actually, just explaining the third sentence would help a lot. Meanwhile, I’m a little afraid to ask where you heard that “intimate” and “intimidate” are related, but it sounds like the sort of nifty “fact” often dispensed by self-help gurus and similar feather merchants. I plead guilty to finding this sort of thing especially annoying because the “facts” so often involve words being supposedly related or from the same “root.”

Occasionally the whole shebang turns on a pun masquerading as some sort of cosmic etymological convergence, as in the perennially popular “Yesterday is history. Tomorrow is a mystery. Today is a gift. That’s why it is called ‘the present.’” Only a Grinch would argue with today (usually) being a wonderful thing akin to a shiny new toaster. But that’s not why we call this historical period, this day or this moment “the present.” Although “present” in the “right now” sense and “present” in the “something given as a gift” sense are related (they both go back to the Latin “praesens,” meaning “at hand” or “being here”), they are two separate words with very different histories.

In the case of “intimate” and “intimidate,” the only thing the two words have in common is the use of the Latin prefix “in,” meaning “into” or “within.” They do not share a “common root meaning.”

“Intimidate” carries a clue to its “root meaning” right in the middle of the word: “timid.” “Intimidate” first appeared in the mid-17th century meaning “to render timid; to make fearful, to cow.” In modern usage, “to intimidate” often involves force or threats of force or violence (“Advantage was taken of the presence of the regular troops … to intimidate the Grasia chiefs into acquiescence.” 1848). The root sense of “intimidate” is “to make timid”; “timid” itself comes from the Latin “timidus,” from the verb “timere,” meaning “to fear.”

“Intimate” as an adjective and noun also comes from Latin, in this case the superlative “intimus,” meaning “most personal, profound” (as a noun, “intimus” meant “close friend”). In English, “intimate” can mean “most personal, innermost” (as one’s intimate thoughts) or “closely personal or familiar” (as in intimate family relationships or intimate knowledge of a subject). As a noun, “intimate” means someone who is a very close friend or associate (“Henry … only remembered that Oliver had been his friend and intimate.” 1828).

Interestingly, “intimate” is also a verb, but it followed completely different route into English from that of “intimate” as a noun or adjective. (It’s also usually pronounced differently, with a long “a” in the third syllable.) While “to intimate” today means “to suggest indirectly or imply,” its source was the Latin “intimare,” meaning “to announce,” and in English “to intimate” originally meant “to make known, notify formally, announce” or even “to declare” in the case of war. That’s quite a reversal for “to intimate.” It’s possible that the cuddly adjective “intimate” exerted a moderating influence on the verb over time, and “to intimate” became less about shouting things in public and more about slyly suggesting them in the privacy of one’s own parlor.

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