For the Love of Prepositions (and affixes) Part 10b — Ob- continued…

[Another post in my ongoing series on prepositions and affixes]

For the Love of Prepositions Part 10b

Ob- continued…

‘Against’, ‘at’, ‘before’, ‘towards’, ‘upon’, ‘with regard to’, ‘in the way’: the Latin prefix ob- and its Greek counterpart epi- are by no means short of meanings.

But, while Greek ‘epi-‘ has become the preserve of esoteric erudite terms such as ‘epistemology’ and ‘epidermis’, ‘epideictic’ and ‘epinephrine’, Latin ob- remains earthily ensconced in common parlance and has, over time, accrued a semantic crust that specializes in signifying obstruction.

And yet, despite, or perhaps because of this somewhat obstreperous reputation, ob-, through objectivity and observation, has somehow insinuated itself into the very nerves and sinews of our modern empiricist, scientific view of the world. Ob- has gotten under our skin indeed.

Object has a strange history; that of observe is stranger still.

Meaning literally something thrown before us like an apple of discord, the litigious Romans used the term obiecta primarily to refer to the charges brought against the defendant in a court of law.

By extension, Medieval scholars came to use the word to refer to things obvious to sense-perception and hence also that to which cognition reaches out. The grammatical sense derived from this appeared much later and is not found in English until well into the 18th century boom in linguistic prescriptivism.  

The Romans called the case of this part of speech ‘accusative’ by way of mistranslation of Greek aitiatike, which would more accurately be rendered ‘causative’.

The Greeks of course got it right. It is the object that causes action in the subject, not vice versa.

The object from this more ancient perspective is thus not something summoned into being or subject to our will but something beckoning to be reached out to: an essential part of the essentially graspable comprehensible, intelligible world.

And yet there remains something mysterious about objects that entices and yet remains fundamentally unidentifiable: celestial bodies, UFOs and foreign objects embedded in human tissue, in the stomach or the eye.  Objets trouvés in unclassifiable museum displays.

The object is the cause of our curious inquiry. The object of epistemology.

While ‘object’ has shifted meaning over time, the verb ‘observe’ sprang into the language of the Ancient Romans already decked out in its full array of modern meanings and collocations. It means as it has always meant ‘keep watch’, ‘wait’, ‘guard’, ‘notice’, ‘care for’, ‘heed’, ‘respect’, ‘abide by’, and ‘obey’.

The underlying root of ‘servus’ slave is now somewhat obscured but still makes its presence felt, standing at once over and under us, like a patient guard(ian), hiding in plain sight.

Watchers serve their charges by blocking the way. We observe patients in hospital to keep them safe from harm and we observe convicts in panoptical penitentiaries to keep us safe from them.

We observe laws and we observe the movements of stars and planets in the heavens. We observe customs and holy days. Our social life is grounded in observance and our science in observation.

In laboratories and observatories we keep careful watch over a world full of daemons and baleful celestial beings that have no reason to wish us well. With our reason we attempt to keep these always ultimately unidentifiable objects firmly within our purview. Held tight or kept at a safe distance, we ensure that they are always kept closely in check.

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