Simanaitis Says

On cars, old, new and future; science & technology; vintage airplanes, computer flight simulation of them; Sherlockiana; our English language; travel; and other stuff


IN MY continuing series of Etymology for our Times, today I examine the word “embarrass.” Merriam-Webster defines its first meaning as “to cause to experience a state of self-conscious distress.”

Once again, Merriam-Webster nails it in timely fashion: Indeed, I do experience a state of self-conscious distress over Donald J. Trump.

M-W offers a question in its discussion of the word: “Are you here because you spelled embarrass wrong? Don’t be embarrassed.” It turns out the word got all those r’s and s’s from the French word embarrasser, which has the same meaning.

Tracing backwards, M-W says the French word has kinship with the Portuguese embaraçar,” and this is where the etymology gets interesting. Embaraçar grew from the prefix em, related to the Latin and English “in,” combined with baraça, Portuguese for “noose.” The idea is that an embarrassed person is caught up in something or other.

M-W also makes the observation that the word “embarrass” teams with a goodly number of prepositions, “about,” “for,” “in,” “over,” and “with,” to name a few, each subtly changing the meaning of “embarrassed ______.”

To wit:

I am embarrassed about Donald J. Trump when I think of friends around the world and their impressions of him, and, by association, of us electing him.

I am embarrassed for Donald J. Trump in his lamentable mental state. Consider, for example, his recent covfefe over Norway’s purchase of F-52 fighters, when it turns out this aircraft’s only existence is pixelated in the Call of Duty video game. Trump’s oft displayed narcissism also comes to mind, in everything from trivial matters such as crowd size to relevant ones like political achievements.

I am embarrassed in Donald J. Trump’s being able to bamboozle a portion of the American public, including some whom I number as friends and, seemingly, much of the Republican Party, with his bluster and congenital mendacity.

I am embarrassed over Donald J. Trump’s treatment of women, minorities, the physically challenged, immigrants, and, indeed, entire countries. His obscenities in this last regard seem to grow, with his opinion of Haiti, El Salvador, and African countries being only a recent example.

I am also embarrassed with Trump apologists who compare these obscenities with the “salty” language of previous presidents, Harry S Truman and Lyndon Johnson, to name two. Salty, yes, but the actions of these presidents speak well for them: Truman’s Executive Order 9981 abolished discrimination in the U.S. military; LBJ’s signing of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was fundamental to U.S. civil rights and labor law.

With its various prepositions and interpretations, isn’t “embarrass” quite the versatile word?

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (2 Volume Set), Oxford University Press, 1971. Image once again recycled.

My analysis wouldn’t be complete without consultation, aided by its handy magnifying glass, of The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. The OED offers a multiplicity of related meanings for “embarrass.” 1. trans. To hamper, impede. 2. To perplex, throw in doubt. 3. To render difficult.

Its earliest reference is 1672: “The People being embarrest by their equal ties to both….”

It’s comforting to know that, even back then, folks misspelled the word. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2018

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: