I'm curious about the word understand and based on brief research its origins seem not very clear, https://www.etymonline.com/word/understand

Breaking up the word in two, under-stand, I could make a word-by-word translation into the Swedish word under-ställa, which is quite authoric and translates back into submit under.

It kind of makes sense if the word understand is used in an hierarchical context e.g. military etc. However, when trying to emphasize the kind of understanding that doesn't ask for obedience, but rather a temporary shift of perspective or "theory of mind", could the word understand be replaced with a better one?


4 Answers 4


As far as I understand from Grimm's treatment of German unterstellen "suppose", it started literally as to find a place to stand under (earliest evidence from C8), thus to park horses, to stay over (over the night) and from there took on a spiritual meaning as to seek shelter, confide in higher powers, confess to a believe, to believe, to suppose (now chiefly bi-transitive and negatively connotated in German, to believe somebody stupid). Indeed a Unterstand is still simply something to stand under, a stand, an overhang and similar (chiefly if it rains); a stay in English has similar meaings, a short stint seems comparable and to stall basically mean "stop"; The stall, Ger Stallung (animal enclosure) rather derives from a sense "firm", though.

Now I have no proof that this directly parallels the English situation. I don't suppose it's the complete picture as suppose on the one hand looks mighty similar, but German verstehen "to understand" needs to be compared as well. ver- often has a connotation of change (verhandeln "negotiate", Handel "trade"; versichern, Versicherung "insurance"), though four or five other ones, too.

This inspires the following comparison, though under does not directly compare to inter (if from PIE *h2en- vs *h1en- respectively, which is not entirely certain). Yet I'd suppose that inter- might give the necessary insight, which etymonline and several answers relying on it agree with, glossing "among".

@jlawler's allusion to behind given in the other thread cannot be dismissed either, if stand behind basically means support (also in German at least).

For the previous too paragraphs compare Ger einstehen, with a much stronger connotation than to stand in [for somebody]--it rather means support in general, in certain contexts.

This will have to suffice for an answer about an uncertain etymology, before I go off on a tangent about stout beer, shortbread, Germanic vowel alternation i, a, u (implying under was used as a preverb with perfective aspect), stood vs stutz, stütz, that would be ultimately undecidable because of the principle of explosion.


The OED does not offer much more insight, and there were no obvious connections between any of the definitions of 'under' and any of the definitions of 'stand' that appeared to have the same meaning as 'understand.' I would not read too much into the direct translation of 'under-ställa' since 'understand' is a very old word, and there are cognates in the many of the other Germanic languages with the same meaning as in English:

Old English: understondam, Old Frisian: understonda, Middle High and Low German: understân, Middle Dutch: onderstaen

As a side note, I find it interesting that a similar word in Old English 'forstandan' also had cognates in Old/Middle Dutch and German, 'verstaen' and 'firstantan,' which have survived their 'understood' counterparts in the modern languages.

  • Yeah, forstandan is also represented in swedish with the commonly used word "förstå". And the word understondam exists with a completely different meaning in swedish, "understundom" which means "sometimes". Oh languages are fun!
    – user247245
    Commented Nov 1, 2018 at 19:12

Here is the meaning, and under this is the origin

(Bear in mind England was heavily influenced by France therefore so were many of the words)

If you take the word literally, it would mean to stand under.

English can sometimes be very confusing this way ^

Hope this helps

  • What is the connection between the literal meaning of under + stand and the actual meaning of understand? Linking to a Google search doesn't answer the question, especially given that Google doesn't necessarily present the same results to all users.
    – nnnnnn
    Commented Jan 15, 2020 at 12:22
  • @nnnnnn thanks for that! I'll edit my answer
    – Coding4el
    Commented Jan 15, 2020 at 12:27
  • French has nothing to do with it. onderstandan was in Old English by the 9th century.
    – Colin Fine
    Commented Feb 14, 2020 at 11:23

I'll quote the Summary on pp 197-198.

Newman, John. “HOW TO UNDERSTAND ‘UNDERSTAND.’” Neuphilologische Mitteilungen, vol. 102, no. 2, 2001, pp. 185–199. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/43344816.

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