It suddenly struck me as odd that the words indolence and indolent have the meanings they do, since they’re transparently from Latin dolere ‘hurt’ (either transitive ‘give pain to’ or intransitive ‘feel pain’) and Latin indolentia does in fact mean ‘freedom from pain.’ I wondered if it was just English that had the sense development to ‘unwilling(ness) to exert oneself,’ but no, the cognate words mean the same thing in all the Romance languages. The OED entry (published 1900) doesn’t help; it just gives the senses “Insensibility or indifference to pain” and “Freedom from pain; a state of rest or ease, in which neither pain nor pleasure is felt” (both obsolete) and “The disposition to avoid trouble; love of ease; laziness, slothfulness, sluggishness” (first in 1710: R. Steele, Tatler No. 132 “Heavy honest Men, with whom I have passed many Hours with much Indolence”), without any explanation of the development. Then I checked with the Trésor de la langue française informatisé and found that the modern sense “Disposition à se donner le moins de peine possible” goes back to at least 1660, and wondered if it was the multivalence of the French word peine, which started out meaning ‘suffering’ and developed a range of senses including ‘trouble, pains’ (of the sort one takes if one is not indolent), that was responsible for the change, and it spread from French to other languages. In any case, I’ll be interested to see the updated entry when the OED gets around to revising it.


  1. In my field the word “indolent” is used quite often, and the meaning seems to cut close to etymology. Indolent tumors are tumors which do not cause much trouble. (It used to be the case that cancers were only found when the tumors grew and caused health problems; but nowadays cancer screening such as mammography, colonoscopy, or PSA prostate screening finds things which may have never caused problems. Especially with prostate cancer, most tumors found in screening grow too slowly to pose danger to the lives of elderly patients … but the dangers and side-effects of surgical prostate removal are quite strong. We are fighting an uphill battle now to get the US urologists to use genetic tests to decide which tumors are indolent, because right now they prefer to resect them all … giving “indolent” a twist of meaning, “the one which wouldn’t cause pain if left to its own designs, but which will cause much pain if a surgery-minded physician discovers it”)

  2. @DP: An oncologist told a friend of mine: “Just because your tumour is benign, it doesn’t mean it won’t kill you”.
    Medics have adopted a counter-intuitive use of “benign”, I’d say.

  3. Just because something has only 5% chance of killing you, it doesn’t mean that it won’t kill you. That’s very true, and if we could prevent every low-level danger free of charge, wouldn’t it be cool?
    But nothing is free. Surgeries carry risks. Decreased quality of life afterwards are a cost too.
    You just get used to the calculus of bad risks, benefits, and collateral damage in cancer field. Like the docs won’t use chemo for lung cancer if the estimate risk if dying is less than 20%, because chemo only prevents about 10% of lung cancer deaths, but poisons to death 2% of the patients. 20%*10%-2% = 0 is the unexciting balance of patient lives. But we went far offtopic here.
    (Another area where the “let’s prevent something bad and let’s not worry about the costs, benefits, or collateral damage” formula is the way of life is politics, of course)

  4. David Eddyshaw says

    Reminds me of the expression “he’s feeling no pain” meaning “he’s very drunk.”
    Don’t know if it’s a Briticism, as I’ve never had occasion to say it to (or of) an American (most Americans I have known have been totally abstaining missionaries, and may possibly constitute an unrepresentative sample.)

  5. David Eddyshaw says

    “Benign Intracranial Hypertension”, so-called, makes you go blind.
    It is indeed a term used in medicalese in a way much at variance with human speech. Like “acute” and “chronic.”

  6. indolentia isn’t a common Latin word; it’s Cicero’s calque for ἀναλγησία. And something similar has happened with ἀπάθεια, also associated with the Stoics.

  7. Interesting that “pain” can be injury and also “trouble,” so “take pains to do something” means to exert oneself, and by extension to be lazy is to avoid pain. This is true in the French as well, obviously (“donner le moins de peine possible”).

  8. Interesting that “pain” can be injury and also “trouble,” so “take pains to do something” means to exert oneself, and by extension to be lazy is to avoid pain.
    Perhaps one reason why this seems interesting is that modern medicine has made it possible to cordon off pains and injuries into a special category of “fixable” unpleasantness (take another codeine tablet!). Another reason might be that technology has made it possible to cordon off many kinds of effort into a different category of unpleasantness “fixable” by different means (get an electric lawnmower!).
    So these categories today don’t in practice seem to have much to do with each other, except “by extension” and metaphor.
    I imagine that in Ancient Times, before anesthetics and automation really took off, all kinds of things (that we nowadays distinguish from each other, as fixable in distinct ways) were experienced as forms of more or less undifferentiated unpleasantness.

  9. Today, well-faring in the West, we experience all kinds of things as “progress” of an undifferentiated kind. Perhaps in 500 years paleosociologists will find it interesting that we failed to distinguish effectively between different kinds of progress – the kinds of progress that harm our immune systems, say, and other kinds.

  10. marie-lucie says

    Chance: “donner le moins de peine possible”
    I had never thought of it, but la peine means different things in different contexts, both semantic and syntactic. In the context of this discussion I think you mean SE donner le moins de peine possible ‘to go to the least possible trouble [to do something]’. Without the reflexive pronoun, your phrase means ‘to give the least amount of (psychological) pain/sorrow‘.

  11. A polite way to refer to someone’s baldness: il se donne le moins de peigne possible.

  12. John Emerson says

    “Feeling no pain” is in Beowulf: “Sorge ne cuthon”, I think.
    The chemical indole is unrelated, I think:

  13. Yes, that WiPe article says “The name indole is a portmanteau of the words indigo and oleum”.

  14. Similarly, travel and travail are doublets: both are from a post-Roman instrument of torture, the trepalium. The name of the latter may mean that it had three stakes, but nobody knows for sure.

  15. JC, I think that these words were discussed here a few years ago. Tripalium or its descendants seems to have been applied to several contrivances over time, one of them for restraining (not hurting) a horse while working on its foot, something like that.

  16. Yes, here (toward the end of the thread)—what a memory you have!

  17. marie-lucie says

    Thanks LH, I sometimes remember the things I was particularly interested in and did some research on before writing a comment.
    I looked at the reference you provide (2010), in which I referred to yet an earlier discussion! The reference to a horse restraint must have been in that earlier discussion.

  18. I’m reasonably sure m-l was thinking, back in 2010, of this Language Log post from 2007, to which she, Hat, and I all contributed!

  19. Another long memory! I was thinking “they didn’t have comment threads back then, did they?”… but it turned out Mark simply quoted our e-mails.

  20. John Emerson says

    “Pain” / “pains”, “labor”, “passion”, and “suffer” / “suffering” all have overlapping meanings with some combination of hurt, lack of agency (being the object), and work. All seem to have evolved since the King James Bible. “Suffer” means “hurt”, “be the object of” (suffer insult), or “allow” (suffer the little children) ; “labor” means “work” or “hurt” (labor pains, the sweat of they brow); “pains” mean “feelings of hurt” or “careful work”; “passion” means “hurt” (be overcome with pain, passion of Christ) or erotic obsession (be overcome with desire).

    According to Hannah Arendt, before ca. 1800 erotic passion was thought of as losing control of yourself rather than as doing something.

    My guess is that the difference between “labor” and “work” is that “labor” is both painful and done at someone else’s will.

  21. marie-lucie says

    JC: I’m reasonably sure m-l was thinking, back in 2010, of this Language Log post from 2007

    That was a very interesting topic and I remember writing about it earlier than 2010, but not that some of the discussion ended up mentioned on Language Log. Unfortunately my elderly computer now refuses to let me read Language Log, whether current posts or older ones, so I could not verify anything (each thread opens for a fraction of a second but then closes). I started to look at the LH posts for the year 2007 but only had time to go as far as February, so I have not been able to refresh my memory of how our discussion went.

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