Surprise: My Day in a Word

SurpriseDread weighed heavy on my morning as I went through my pre-work routine. Word on the street was that the Director of the Program was going to hand me my ass in a 2:00 pm meeting for an error in a presentation he gave at a recent conference. How was this my fault? I made the presentation.

It wasn’t the getting yelled at the bothered me. I mean, fuck this guy, right? I’d been yelled at by better men than him. What bothered me was that the meeting wasn’t until the mid-afternoon, and I’d likely be at my desk by 8:30 am. Get it over with already so I could get on with my day. My outlook on my job was already pretty gloomy. I didn’t need this dark cloud hanging over my head, making things even worse.

When 2:00 pm arrived. I made my way into the director’s office and pulled up a chair at coffee-colored conference table dominating his office. As soon as my ass hit the seat, my ire started to rise. I was ready to return whatever insulting volley he sent my way.

Turns out I didn’t need to get so worked up, for he didn’t have any real problems with me or my work. He acknowledged the error, but, overall, he said the presentation was pretty good and that it was well received. In fact, if he was upset with anyone, it was with my boss–the very person who told me to prepare for the worst.

This, to be sure, was a pleasant surprise.

*   *   *

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the word surprise, when not used in the militaristic sense, is defined as “an unexpected occurrence or event; anything unexpected or astonishing” and “the feeling or emotion excited by something unexpected, or for which one is unprepared.”

Oh, I was unprepared for the director’s comments alright. You could even say that they caught me off guard. No wonder then that, etymologically speaking, the word surprise is inextricably linked to the notion of a surprise attack. As noted in the Oxford Dictionary of Word Histories (ODWH):

A surprise was originally an “unexpected seizure of a place, or attack on troops.” It comes from the Old French feminine past participle of surprendre, from medieval Latin superprehendere “to seize.”

The Dictionary of Word Origins (Ayto) agrees, “To surprise someone is etymologically to ‘overtake’ them,” and goes on to offer the same etymology as the ODWH. However, it also notes that, “By the time [surprise] reached English, it had begun to be used for ‘affect suddenly.'”

Unfortunately, the origin of the phrase “well blow me down” (also a way of indicating surprise) remains a mystery.


Published by Joe3

Founder of the College Park Community and Butter Lamb Reference Libraries

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