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To understand something means to be aquainted with it, to know it very well, know how it "ticks". This is one of the basic words that has a direct "meaning" in mind.

However, if we "dissect" it, is seems like it means to stand under something. Isn't knowing something would logically be called abovestand and not understand, since when you are under something, you are less informed about it then when you are above it.

This may seem senseless to you, but I am sure a native English speaker will get the idea of what I am trying to say. Why under, not above?

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haha you certainly rattled the etymologists' cages there! I'm not one - I just copied a few bits into my answer to illustrate my basic point that the "understanding" you ended up with probably wasn't going to be what you'd originally expected. –  FumbleFingers Mar 14 '12 at 16:46
    
By the way, it's not a senseless question at all. –  Daniel Mar 14 '12 at 16:47
    
Thank you. The reason I asked is because in Russian we have pretty much similar "misconception" and now after reading the answers I understand that the same way we have "under" that means "stand behind". This is kind of fantastic. –  Maxim V. Pavlov Mar 14 '12 at 16:52
    
Off-topic: In Japanese, the character for "divide" is the same used for "understand" which is why I felt it translates more closely with "rationalize" (ignoring the negative connotation). –  zzzzBov Mar 14 '12 at 19:27
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The link in Fumblefingers' answer is what you should be reading: it provides the most detailed and thorough explanation of the possibilities. In summary: we do not know how exactly under + stand came to mean understand, i.e. there is no answer yet. –  Cerberus Mar 14 '12 at 19:42

7 Answers 7

up vote 6 down vote accepted

It's not "logical". It's metaphorical. Here's the etymology from the OED:

[OE. understondan, -standan (under-1 8 a), = OFris. understonda, MDa. understande, MSw. undi(r)standa, OIcel. (as a foreign word) undirstanda. Cf. MLG. understân to understand, to step under, MDutch onderstaen (Dutch -staan), MHG. understân, -stên (G. unterstehen), to take upon oneself, to venture, presume, etc.

With a different prefix, the same use of stand appears in OE. forstandan, OS. farstandan, OHG. far-, firstantan (firstân), and MHG. verstân, -stên (G. verstehen), MDutch verstaen (Dutch -staan). In the 15th and 16th cents. three forms of the past participle were current, viz. (a) the original understanden (also -stonden), in use till about 1550; (b) the reduced form of this, understande (-stonde), -stand (-stond), common till about 1575, and surviving into the 17th cent.; (c) the new form understanded (-stonded), very common from about 1530 to 1585. The occurrence of understanded in the Thirty-Nine Articles, xxxv, in the phrase `understanded of the people', has given rise to recent echoes of it, especially in journalistic use. The modern form understood came into use in the latter part of the 16th cent., and was usual by 1600. ]

So understand means to stand under (we would now say "stand behind" as a more common idiom), to know well, to have trust in, to have personal confidence in, etc. To say one understands a task, a trade, a fact, an idea, a job, the meaning of a word, or a person means all that. The personal aspect of the word is pre-eminent.

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This explanation does not really follow from the quotation given. Upon following the link in Fumblefingers' answer, it will be seen that there are several competing theories, under which "stand behind" is not at all the most prominent one (pun intended). "Stand among" has more support; another major theory refers to a certain kind of analogy/contamination within the semantic field. –  Cerberus Mar 14 '12 at 21:49
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It's the same metaphor in either case, representing slowly changing social understandings over several millennia. The fact is that the "under-" part is so different from the word under that it can come as a shock that it's there. It's become as invisible as the auf- 'up' in German aufhören 'to stop'; or the hemos 'we have' in Spanish veniremos 'we will come'. That's what happens to words as they succumb to the binding energy of the verb and plunge in to become affixes, like useta coulda shoulda wanna oughta. –  John Lawler Mar 14 '12 at 22:02
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No, it is probably not the same metaphor. The other "under" meant "among", not "under". And there may not be any real metaphor concerning "standing" in the theory that mentions semantic blending. I highly recommend reading the link, it is quite fascinating! Too bad the book only treats relatively few words; but then it is only an introduction. –  Cerberus Mar 14 '12 at 22:37
    
There are treatments of the etymological metaphorical sense of stand; this one, for instance. –  John Lawler Mar 14 '12 at 22:52

You can't assume a current word superficially constructed from multiple elements which are also current words can necessarily be easily "deconstructed" from current meanings of the components.

From OED, it appears English imported understand wholesale from Middle Dutch onderstaen (to take upon oneself, to venture, presume). But Old English also had the same use of "stand" in forstandan.

From An analytic dictionary of English etymology, OE. forstandan, OHG firstantan, firstan 'verstehen' may have meant primarily 'stand before,' and hence 'watch, observe, perceive'. And just as the "stand" component semantically relates to perception, standpoint rather than physical posture, the "under" component is actually more among, within rather than beneath, supporting.

Be warned that if you follow the above link, you're looking at six pages of densely-packed analysis of the etymology of understand; attempts to summarise it here are somewhat futile.

I'm not sure any of this will really help OP. It just serves as a reminder that language evolves - things which look similar today may be unrelated, and things which look dissimilar may have a common origin.

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Very, very interesting link. My summary of it is thus: we do not know. It admits that all we have are various alternative speculations. –  Cerberus Mar 14 '12 at 19:41
    
@Cerberus: I think this is the second time in a week I find myself referencing your answer re "supposed to", and the wretched think/believe disparity. Like them, "understand" is a word much used in contexts like the "hard problem", volition, belief, and all those other things where hardly anyone even knows what exactly they think, let alone is able and willing to articulate their thoughts (whatever "thoughts" actually are! :) –  FumbleFingers Mar 14 '12 at 21:30
    
True: "understand" can have an added meaning in the realm of desirability ("don't worry, she will understand"). I guess it is a subjective kind of modality. –  Cerberus Mar 14 '12 at 21:40
    
@Cerberus: Not to mention the bank manager who ushers you into his office and starts off with I understand you've applied for a loan. Then clearly demonstrates that he doesn't understand, by making you explain in great detail exactly why you want the money, and how you're going to repay it. The only thing the bank manager understands at the start of that little chat is that he's got all the money. –  FumbleFingers Mar 14 '12 at 21:47

The prefix under in understand does not mean "beneath", but rather appears to be from an unrelated root mean "among". Allow me to quote etymonline.com:

O.E. understandan "comprehend, grasp the idea of," probably lit. "stand in the midst of," from under + standan "to stand" (see stand). If this is the meaning, the under is not the usual word meaning "beneath," but from O.E. under, from PIE *nter- "between, among" (cf. Skt. antar "among, between," L. inter "between, among," Gk. entera "intestines;" see inter-).

That is the suggestion in Barnhart, but other sources regard the "among, between, before, in the presence of" sense of O.E. prefix and preposition under as other meanings of the same word. "Among" seems to be the sense in many O.E. compounds that resemble understand, e.g. underniman "to receive," undersecan "to investigate," underginnan "to begin." It also seems to be the sense still in expressions such as under such circumstances.

Perhaps the ultimate sense is "be close to," cf. Gk. epistamai "I know how, I know," lit. "I stand upon." Similar formations are found in O.Fris. (understonda), M.Dan. (understande), while other Germanic languages use compounds meaning "stand before" (cf. Ger. verstehen, represented in O.E. by forstanden). For this concept, most I.E. languages use figurative extensions of compounds that lit. mean "put together," or "separate," or "take, grasp" (see comprehend). O.E. oferstandan, M.E. overstonden, lit. "over-stand" seem to have been used only in literal senses.

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Etymonline presents a plausible explanation:

understand
O.E. understandan "comprehend, grasp the idea of," probably lit. "stand in the midst of," from under + standan "to stand" (see stand). If this is the meaning, the under is not the usual word meaning "beneath," but from O.E. under, from PIE nter- "between, among" (cf. Skt. antar "among, between," L. inter "between, among," Gk. entera "intestines;" see inter-).

It goes on to give a second explanation which ties understand to the current word under:

That is the suggestion in Barnhart, but other sources regard the "among, between, before, in the presence of" sense of O.E. prefix and preposition under as other meanings of the same word. "Among" seems to be the sense in many O.E. compounds that resemble understand, e.g. underniman "to receive," undersecan "to investigate," underginnan "to begin." It also seems to be the sense still in expressions such as under such circumstances.

Perhaps the ultimate sense is "be close to," cf. Gk. epistamai "I know how, I know," lit. "I stand upon." Similar formations are found in O.Fris. (understonda), M.Dan. (understande), while other Germanic languages use compounds meaning "stand before" (cf. Ger. verstehen, represented in O.E. by forstanden). For this concept, most I.E. languages use figurative extensions of compounds that lit. mean "put together," or "separate," or "take, grasp" (see comprehend). O.E. oferstandan, M.E. overstonden, lit. "over-stand" seem to have been used only in literal senses.

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According to the extremely useful and interesting Online Etymology Dictionary (www.etymonline.com), understand comes from old English. In those days, under did not mean "beneath", but "among, between", a semantic thread that goes all the way back to the Sanskrit word antar.

But the dictionary also states another hypothesis, which is directly linked to your opinion, but rather inversely (cf. Gk. epistamai): "I stand upon."

It's good to keep in mind that words have old and forgotten ancestors. The link between the new and the old might remain, but most often in an exquisitely convoluted fashion.

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You might be getting tripped up by thinking that under means below or beneath. Sure, under *can* mean the opposite of over or above, but there are several other meanings of under as well.

Several words begin with under- (such as undertones, understudy, understate, undertake) - not always implying physical proximity beneath something else.

(See link provided above).

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The direct answer to your question is that the meaning of 'understand' is not a composition of its parts, as you have well noticed, and this is a general feature of natural languages that it is not logical or literal. It might start off literally (as in a constructed language) but once a generation has gone by, everything is metaphorical. For example there are similar words 'undertake', 'forget', 'withold' whose meanings are only tangentially related to their parts.

As to the particular phenomenon of 'understand', etymonline has a speculative derivation where 'under' really comes from the PIE root for 'inter' or between (thus an attempt at preserving some literal connection in the ancient word.

For comparison as to how other languages do it for 'understand', there is quite a bit of 'illogical' metaphor: 'com-prendre' in French and Spanish (literally 'take with'), 'по-нимать' (Russian - 'takes on'), 'κατα-λαβαίνω' (Greek 'get at). Ofc ourse all these examples are European, so there may be a area influence. I was unable to confirm examples in Indian or Chinese (most terms in Chinese really are pairs of syllables each with tehir own stand alone meaning) so often a metaphorical extension occurs anyway).

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It is spelled κατα-λαμβάνω, and it rather means "seize and hold down" if translated very literally. There is also συν-ίημι, "set together", and ἐπ-ίστᾰμαι, "stand on/by". –  Cerberus Mar 14 '12 at 19:37

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