Friday, September 15, 2006

Plowing Straight Ahead

This is how the Oxford English Dictionary defines delirium:

1. A disordered state of the mental faculties resulting from disturbance of the functions of the brain, and characterized by incoherent speech, hallucinations, restlessness, and frenzied or maniacal excitement.
2. fig. Uncontrollable excitement or emotion, as of a delirious person; frenzied rapture; wildly absurd thought or speech.

Curiously, the word comes to us from the field of agriculture--literally. In Latin, a lira was the ridge between two furrows. A furrow is the narrow trench made in the earth with a plow, especially for the reception of seed. Setting plants in parallel lines is an efficient way to maximize available space.

To go de lira (away from the direction of the furrow) was to begin plowing in a crooked line, to deviate from the straight path.

So the word denoting a confused mental state started out as the act of a careless or inattentive farmer.

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