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The New York Times article of this past July 29th titled, “The D.O. Is In Now: Osteopathic Schools Turn Out Nearly a Third of All Med School Grads,” features the growing popularity of the Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in Harlem, Manhattan among would-be doctors, and introduces the following episode:

“Gabrielle Rozenberg, in her second year at Touro, remembers the Ur-moment that would lead her to this somewhat unconventional path in medicine. Growing up on Long Island, she suffered from chronic ear infections. Her doctor recommended surgery. But before committing to an invasive procedure, her parents took her to a D.O. In several visits, he performed some twists and turns of her neck and head, and within days the infection cleared up.”
       ― New York Times, “The osteopathic branch of medicine is booming”, 29 July 2014

I surmise “Ur-moment” means a decisive or eureka moment in retrospect. But I don’t find this word in any English dictionaries at hand.

Is “Ur-moment” a normal English expression? Isn’t it “Ah! (or something else)-moment”?

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The expression would probably be understood by most educated native speakers if they applied their understanding of its constituent elements to synthesize a coherent meaning, but it strikes me as being an excessively pompous and elaborate way to describe what is essentially a pretty banal event: a twist of the neck to remedy an ear infection and a historical turning-point are scarcely comparable in significance. I would also argue that since it took several visits to the osteopath to produce a noticeable result, it hardly qualifies as a 'moment' of either the ordinary or the urdinary variety –  Erik Kowal Jul 30 at 4:16
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I consider myself to be a well-educated native speaker, with a much larger than average vocabulary, and I've never come across "ur-" before, to my knowledge. –  Phil M Jones Jul 30 at 8:00
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@Phil obviously you're not a musician. Urtexts are all over the place, I'm telling you. –  RegDwigнt Jul 30 at 11:34
    
@Reg Actually, I am an amateur musician, but I'd genuinely never come across the term until today. I'm not a scholarly musician though. –  Phil M Jones Jul 30 at 15:45
    
An example where "ur-" is standard. –  Dejan Govc Jul 30 at 16:35

4 Answers 4

up vote 20 down vote accepted

Arguably, no, Ur-moment is not a “normal” English expression for most people.

However, it really depends on the company you keep whether it is normal or not. That’s because ur- is indeed a reasonably productive prefix meaning the original version of something in literary and academic registers, and has been such ever since the second half of the 19th century.

It was borrowed from German. You see it in places like urtext edition, just as one example, to indicate the original, unabridged text of some work. I for example have scads of musical scores on my shelves all labelled Urtext. (OED: “Urtext or urtext: an original text; the earliest version.”)

Regarding ur- in general, the OED says that it is a prefix. . . .

representing German (also MHG., OHG.) ur-, denoting ‘primitive, original, earliest,’ as ur-Hamlet, ‑origin, ‑stock, etc. See also Urheimat, Urschleim, Ursprache, Urtext.

G. ursprache (= primitive language) has been freq. used in recent English philological works.

One thing that makes Ur-comment stand out is its capitalization. That’s for the most part of throw-back to its German origin, where all nouns are capitalized. The assimilated version in English is no longer customarily capitalized, as you will see from these OED citations:

  • 1864 Max Müller Lect. Sci. Lang. (1871) II. 133 ― The most troublesome of all vowels, the neutral vowel, sometimes called Urvocal, better Unvocal.
  • 1889 Jacobs Caxton’s Aesop I. 37 ― Any light he can throw on the Ur-origin of the Fables.
  • 1901 Boas Kyd’s Wks. p. xlv, ― The Ur-Hamlet may have contained a number of these borrowings.
  • 1926 A. Møller tr. Pedersen’s Israel I. i. 245 ― The word shēm is found in all Semitic languages and belongs to the absolutely certain ur-semitic components.
  • 1927 A. H. McNeile Introd. to Study of New Testament iii. 50 ― It was an Ur-Evangelium, a primitive written Gospel, some say in Hebrew, some in Aramaic, on which our Gospels were based.
  • 1937 O. Jespersen Analytic Syntax 142 ― Some well-known students of language who even call this [sc. ‘S is P’] the ‘urform’ of sentences.
  • 1943 V. Nabokov in Atlantic Monthly May 69/2 ― The dreadful vulgarity, the Ur-Hitlerism of those ludicrous but vicious organisations.
  • 1947 Auden Age of Anxiety (1948) ii. 46 ― For Long-Ago has been Ever-After since Ur-Papa gave The Primal Yawn that expressed all things.
  • 1949 F. Fergusson Idea of Theater i. 26 ― An enactment of the Ur-Myth of the year‐god.
  • 1950 Psychiatry XIII. 168/2 ― The concept of ur-language and ur-symbolism is of particular importance in Freud’s thought.
  • 1964 C. S. Lewis Discarded Image iv. 54 ― Plato’s ur-Freudian doctrine of the dream as the expression of a submerged wish.
  • 1966 Punch 9 Nov. 718/2 ― Above is Leonardo da Vinci’s design for an ur-tank.
  • 1971 Astrophysics & Space Sci. X. 363 (heading) ― Orientation of galaxies and a magnetic ‘urfield’.
  • 1977 Listener 31 Mar. 416/1 ― The importance of the folk example which he [sc. Bartók] argued to be one of the ur-sources of music.
  • 1979 Listener 14 June 831/1 ― Sir Nikolaus Pevsner’s ur-history, Pioneers of Modern Design.
  • 1983 Sunday Tel. 13 Mar. 14/6 ― Russell Hoban is an ur-novelist, a maverick voice that is like no other.

Notice how in the fullness of time, it has lost its initial capital. That’s what makes your Ur-moment stand out for me: not its existence but its archaic capitalization, which some might consider a trifle “precious” or eye-grabbing.

It does often retain its hyphen, albeit not always. There is some potential for ambiguity without it. For example, urgent just means demanding, but an ur-gent might be Adam. 😇

So you can think of an ur-thing (now probably better spelled urthing) as the first one, or the archetype, or the defining moment in this case, the seed that gave rise to everything else.

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Re the 1889 citation: isn't "ur-origin" redundant? –  David Richerby Jul 30 at 9:49
    
@DavidRicherby Ultima Thule is probably redundant as well, but that didn’t stop it from being used. In any event, the OED just documents the evolving history of usage. There are plenty more citations where those came from. –  tchrist Jul 30 at 11:43
    
@DavidRicherby It could be a translation of the german word Ursprung (= origin) which also is kind of redundant (entsprungen = originate/arise). I think Ur-origin is probably used to emphasize that it is the very first origin and not a later, independent one. –  kapep Jul 30 at 11:43
    
@DavidRicherby: Arguably, when talking about fables, you could say that the origin of Disney's Sleeping Beauty is the Grimms' Little Briar Rose and Perrault's Sleeping Beauty, because that's what it was based off of, but its Ur-origin is Sun, Moon and Talia, because that is (I think) the oldest known variant of the tale. –  pdpi Jul 30 at 13:32

Ur in this case refers to the first, so Ur-moment means the first moment.

This meaning stems from the German ur-, meaning proto, or original.

Apart from being bit of a fancy way of saying "the first", it is often used to distinguish from a series of like events, the Ur- being the very first of the series. Alternately it refers to the first during a time where the subject is still in a primal form. For example, urlanguage is synonymous with proto-language, an ancestral language whose form greatly differs from its modern decendants. TVTropes also uses the concept of Ur Example to refer to the first instance that a certain trope appeared, which is somewhat different from the Trope Maker, where the form of the trope is unambiguous.

Incidentally, there is a bit of a misconception that it comes from the ancient Sumerian city of Ur, well known as one of the most ancient cities in the world. This seems to be a coincidence.

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Thanks for the last paragraph I was wondering :) –  James Jul 30 at 4:16
    
The German Wiktionary page implies that it's a prefix meaning simply "from". For instance, Ursprung, "origin" or "source", comes from the older verb erspringen, "to spring from". –  Mr Lister Jul 30 at 13:40
    
Trivia: "Ur language" could also refer to Ur, a research programming language. –  Istvan Chung Jul 30 at 16:14

No, the prefix "ur-" is not a common construction in English, as demonstrated by the quoted writer mis-using it and their editor not noticing. As tchrist's dictionary quotes explain, the "ur-X" is the original X. The common example is the play Hamlet. There seems to have been a play about a character called Hamlet floating around for about a decade before Shakespeare wrote his play. This original play is referred to the "ur-Hamlet". The prefix is also used in linguistics, philosophy and mathematical logic and set-theory.

But the writer quoted in the question talks about an "ur-moment": an original moment. The ur-moment would either be the birth of the universe or perhaps the birth or conception of the person who had the ur-moment. The moment of realising that manipulating her neck could allegedly cure ear infections is not an ur-moment but a eureka moment (as mentioned in the question).

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I disagree with your second paragraph: If someone refers to the urtext of a play, they obviously don't mean the first text ever written in all of history, but just the first version of that play. Same here: It's the first moment that leads to the further events, not the first moment of all time. This is also how it'd be used in German :-) –  Voo Jul 30 at 12:11

The Old Testament city of Ur was a toponym, a place-name. In the story, the character Abraham, himself an originator of the monotheism practice of his tribe upon which the saga is centered, is said himself to originate from the city of Ur.

So, the common understanding of the the usage of an "Ur-moment" would more than likely be a reference to an "origination of an originating event in one place and at time". The capitalization of the phrase adds even more credence to the theory that the source of the usage is from the Old Testament story meme.

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It seems unlikely that the name of an almost 6000 year old city, named in an isolate language that was probably dead by 2000BC, only to be mentioned in a book that was not known in Europe until some 2000 year ago, has somehow ended up in German, having changed from Sumerian urim to Proto-Germanic *uz-, but if you have a source, I'd love to see it! –  oerkelens Jul 30 at 5:46
    
The reason it's capitalized is not because of the city of Ur but because the prefix, which is applied to nouns, come from German. In German orthography, all nouns (common and proper) are capitalized. –  David Richerby Jul 30 at 9:43
    
@oerkelens You obviously know nothing of proto-Nostratic, the language family that includes proto-Indo-European and Proto-Semitic (and all the African languages plus Dravidian). There's a one-to-one correspondence between cities in Sumeria and productive prefixes in Old Germanic. For example, Nineveh corresponds to 'un-' or 'in-' (of course with metastasis and vowel change). –  Mitch Jul 30 at 16:32
    
@oerkelens: Is the er- prefix in German a variant of ur- < *uz- used in different contexts (like in erlauben / Urlaub)? And is it somehow related to Russian из? –  Giorgio Jul 30 at 19:24
    
@Giorgio - no, I don;t see a link between ur- and -er in German (or their cognates oer- and oor- in Dutch). I don't know about Russian. Erlauben and urlaub are related (as are the Dutch cognates), but I'm not sure that ur in Urlaub is < *uz... But for details you'd probably have on our German sister site (if we have that). –  oerkelens Jul 30 at 20:02

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