Sooth and Soothe
What a comfort to be told that what we believe is true! Even if our belief feels unpleasant, to hear it affirmed is somehow to be reassured. In sooth, this affirmation soothes, as any soothsayer might predict.
Sooth and soothe come from the same Old English root. Soth was originally an adjective meaning “genuine” or “true.” The noun form meant “truth”; the verb form, “to verify or show to be true.”
Soothe emerged in the 1560s for humoring or flattering others by asserting what they said was true. It denoted the comfort of uncritical agreement, not the pain of truth confronting falsehood. Soothe meaning “to calm gently” appeared in the 1690s, finally detached from any relationship to truth.
To learn the error of a former belief is disorienting at best. It may be exciting, it may be distressing, but it rarely soothes. Small wonder we go to such lengths to avoid it. Small wonder our efforts to persuade others (or theirs to persuade us) by facts and logic are often met with deaf ears.
10/7/2019 08:54:47 am
Very interesting historical development of the words. As a psychological process, there is unfortunately something that has been well documented in research that goes beyond the simple discomfort hearing a truth contrary to our beliefs. We have a strong tendency to seek information that supports our beliefs, as well as avoid information that is contrary. And our beliefs are often determined by the company we keep as opposed to any truth or falsity found from reported facts. That combination is what makes us so susceptible to maintaining false beliefs despite a host of contrary information. If our friends believe something, the belief has value to us far beyond its veracity; and strongly encourages us to weigh anything remotely supportive to that belief as more accurate than information which is felt as threatening to the bond we feel in our relationships. We don't defend against "the truth" alone, but instead find sharing a belief with our friends quite "soothing", truth be damned.
Dennis, thanks for the psychological perspective, which I hadn't thought about in relation to confirmation bias. It rings true. Most of the people I spend time with have similar views on most hot-button issues, and I feel like a misfit when I see an issue differently,
10/7/2019 10:38:57 am
I loved learning about these two words. Your insights about our desire to be soothed are right on target. Interesting to think about.
"Soth" in its original meaning definitely sounds preferable to "soothe" in its original meaning. Flattery can be pleasing in some contexts, but as you suggest, it doesn't help us improve. I will say if it's a harsh critique, I'd rather it be delivered diplomatically.
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I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.