In a Word: Time to Relax

Sit back and relax with a quick romp through the history of “relax.”

A orange tabby kitten sleeping in a warm blanket.

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

This last week of the year is a time when many of us, having overworked ourselves throughout the rest of the year, try to cram in our last allotted vacation days at work before we lose them. That time off lets us relax and enjoy the company of friends and family.

With Christmas over, it’s theoretically easier for millions of people to relax, but with Hanukkah and Kwanzaa still in full swing, New Year’s Eve parties to plan, other remaining obligations with families on the books — and especially if you’re one of the skeleton crew keeping the business afloat while everyone else is away — we are perhaps not getting as much R&R as advertised.

So take a moment right now to pause. Take a deep breath, let it out slowly, and allow your mind and your muscles to lose their tension. Keep reading, and together we’ll do a little relaxing.

One of the joys of being a word lover is looking more deliberately at words we use every day and seeing patterns that we might normally miss. Take relax, for example. Re- + lax; does it really mean “to lax again”? Not precisely, but that’s not far from the truth: The word traces back, through Old French, to the Latin relaxare “loosen, stretch, or widen again,” from that re- prefix and laxare “loosen.”

Relax found its way into English in the late 14th or early 15th century, but in the beginning it existed only in the transitive sense — that is, it required a direct object. For centuries, you could “relax your grip” or “relax a knot,” for instance, but it wasn’t until the early 1930s that the intransitive sense caught on, and you could take time off work to just relax.

Which is what I hope you get to spend some time doing over the next week. There’s a lot of tension in the world, and it is good for our minds, our health, and our souls to find a few minutes every day to relax.

Need more relaxation? From our 5-Minute Fitness series, here are a breathing technique to help de-stress, a simple stretch to help soothe your neck, and a simple exercise to help stretch away stress.

Featured image: Shutterstock

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  1. Just the right word for this week, Andy. At only 43 degrees out, at 12:30pm, I’m going back to sleep for several more hours for really deep relaxation most Americans would scoff at, unfortunately. Hibernating is wonderful when you can do so, trust me.


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