A Brief Lesson in Etymology
Updated: Feb 25
An antiquated usage of the word “inspire”, but one that still persists in denotation to this day, is “to breathe in.” Of course, currently in American English we almost never use the word this way, preferring instead the term “inhale.” The former word comes from the Latin root spiro (spirare), which means “to breathe,” and the latter term from the Latin halo (halare), which also means “to breathe.” It is a little difficult to sort out the differences in these terms, as they are nearly synonymous, but there does seem to be according to some interpreters a difference in quality of breath, or in quantity. Spirare and its derivatives were sometimes used to mean the force or blowing of the atmosphere or of nature, or the perceptible movement or air everywhere, whereas halare was used to mean the natural breathing motion that was not “to blow or force air,” which was flare.
The spirare root still applies to breathing in the case of the word “respiration,” by which we mean the process of repetitive breathing, which is exactly what it means in the Latin. But by and large, if I were to use the word inspiration or inspire here in the modern West, almost no one would assume I was referring to breathing. The more generally understood definition of inspire is, at this point, to motivate someone to do something, particularly of the artistic or creative nature.
It is a shame, in my view, that these definitions have become separated, almost to the point where no one considers them even remotely related. Spirare gives us also, of course, the word “spirit,” which itself has a muddy mess of associated definitions, ranging from the force of one’s will or one’s fortitude to the collective pride for our nation or educational institution all the way to the mysterious essence of life or the soul. Regardless, however, no definition of spirit at this point refers to anything truly tangible. And of course, in the same way, the application of the common root spirare to the concept of inspiration makes perfect sense, as inspiration itself is something which is nebulous at best and certainly intangible, according to most people’s understanding.
I don’t find it to be a coincidence that in our current environment we think of inspiration and spirit as something vague and mysterious, while inhalation is exactly the opposite: a purely automatic and quantifiable activity. We often tend to think of inspiration as living chiefly in the domain of the artistic or the public speaker, relegated to the select few who know how to harness it. Breathing, on the other hand, is universal, and so automatic that we often don’t have to think about doing it, unless we are performing some feat that requires us to be conscious of it. Performing on a musical instrument, or singing; running; doing yoga. Exerting ourselves in some non-standard and exemplary way that, even if we do it every day, is still associated with some exceptional effort or feat, which usually results in perspiration (another variant of spirare, meaning through breathing or by means of breathing that has come to be dissociated from its original root)
But I believe inspiration is actually something much more like autonomic breathing than it is like some mystical force of who-knows-what. I believe that inspiration actually can be, and in fact should be, both as regular and as formulaic as its real root implies. Consequently, it is not the province of a select few individuals who know how to harness it, but it is more a part of our daily lives than we even realize. Inspiration, in the modern sense of the word, can be and is found in many places, and is accessible to all of us equally, just as much as the common air we breathe. And like the athlete or the musician, if we know how to focus on our inspiration, how to regulate it and utilize it to maximum effect, we can all do something extraordinary.
People find inspiration in all sorts of sources. Just today I was out by the lake near me, and saw a man walking hand-in-hand with his young son, enjoying the first sun and warmth we’ve seen in a week. I saw gulls and herons dancing over the top of the lake, as glad I assume as we to be out from under the weight of a week’s worth of cold. Online, I saw people and companies donating to help with relief efforts for winter storms. I saw people offering to volunteer to distribute water and food. I saw people offering their homes to one another to share heat and warm showers.
Inspiration is all around us. It is not nebulous. It is not strange. And it is not rare, nor is it secret. It is as public and visible and common as the world itself. When we breathe, we just need to have our noses and mouths open. The rest is automatic. To be inspired, and more importantly, to inspire others, we just need to have our eyes and our hearts open. Then we can’t miss it. The only way to avoid inspiration is to not be paying attention.
So let’s all of us, myself included, learn to inspire: practice breathing in the joy and loveliness around us. The opposite of this, after all, is to breathe out. What is the translation of that? To expire. Our chances, our opportunities, our lives, are not infinite. Let’s make the most of the precious few we do have.