A while ago I read an article about a homeless community in Los Angeles that puts on a production of Handel’s Messiah every year at Christmas time. I was intrigued and searched online for more information. YouTube videos show a veteran named Don Garza, long troubled by PTSD, singing the song “Comfort Ye My People”, and talking about how the music helped him. (You can learn more about Don Garza here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=UY_X4eU59hs and hear him singing the song here https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=qFGdHzqiIi8. ) I was much struck by the seeming depth and power of the word “comfort” in this song ( from Isaiah 40, King James Version of the Bible: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God”). The word seemed bigger than its current meaning of physical ease; soft and cosy. It seemed to have a quality of deep resonant support, and I started wondering where this word came from. So- (from the wonderful online etymological dictionary)- “comfort” is from the Latin confortare “strengthen”, from com- (expressing intensive force), and fortis (strong). (The modern sense of the word “comfort”- giving physical ease- apparently only arose in the 17th cent.) I looked up the roots of fortis and fort (mid 15th century “stronghold”) and found that the words may derive from the Proto-Indo-European (see note below) root *dher (to hold firmly, support). And guess what other word derives from the root *dher? Yes, you guessed it- – dharma. From Sanskrit “law, right, justice”, related to dharayati (“holds”) and cognate with Latin firmus (“strong, stable”); figuratively “constant, trusty”; all from the PIE root *dher- . So the words “comfort” (though Greek and Latin) and “dharma” (through Sanskrit) apparently stem from a common ancient root, meaning to hold firmly, support.
–Sissel Johannessen is a caregiver and a former paleoethnobotanist. She took the precepts at Puget Sound Zen Center in April 2017. Sissel loves etymology- the study of words and how they grow and change and move across time and through cultures. Through an understanding of their roots, the words acquire depth and warmth and luminous new meanings. The words ‘comfort’ and ‘ordinary’ are a couple of common words that have grown and blossomed for her lately. –