The Original Definition of “Harass” Is Most Apt

1. Harassment. We all know the word. Or, I hope we all know the word — just as I hope we all have a general sense of its meaning, something along the lines of Merriam-Webster’s definition of the verb “harass,” “to create an unpleasant or hostile situation…especially by uninvited and unwelcome verbal or physical conduct.” But this common conception is in fact the second, newer interpretation of the word; it’s original definition is both more and less specific and altogether appropriate in today’s context.

Briefly used in the 1610s as “to lay waste,” mainstream usage of “harass” shifted in the 1620s, veering toward “to vex by repeated attacks,” a definition derived from the 16th century French verb harasser, or “to tire out.” Though the specific origin of the French harasser remains hazy, the Online Etymology Dictionary suggests it comes from a mélange of harer, an Old French term for “to provoke or set a dog on,” and the equally Old French harier, as in “to draw [out] or drag [on].” In this light, “harassment” is tenacious and corrosive, pernicious and erosive. Defined by MW as “exhaust or fatigue,” harassment in this light is by definition perpetual and ongoing, a fact to which many women can attest.

Though the term “sexual harassment” didn’t arise until the early 1970s, the pairing of those two words couldn’t be more fitting. Women since time immemorial have been cat called and harangued, pinched and poked, raped and molested, and generally treated like objects by predatory men.* They have been tormented by repeated, caustic incidents like those we’re reading about on the daily. Thankfully, we’re seeing a backlash against such virulent behavior. All the repetitive and successive intrusions meant to erode women’s wherewithal have prepared them for this watershed moment we’re experiencing today. Now it’s time for men like Harvey Weinstein, Al Franken, Roy Moore, Donald Trump, Louis C.K., Mark Halperin, Charlie Rose et al. to be vexed themselves.

(*I know it’s not only women who face harassment — Terry Crews and Tony Goldwyn have come forward with their own stories of being manhandled and verbally harassed, and half-a-dozen men have already accused Kevin Spacey of harassing and/or assaulting them — but women are harassed more often and openly than men.)

(For more Fun with Words, click HERE.)

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