Thursday, October 28, 2010

Lying Down Off the Job

Vocabulary: What's the difference between prone, supine, recumbent, prostrate, lying down, and lying around?

This morning, lolling in bed, it occurred to me suddenly, as I'm sure it would occur to many of you on an ordinary morning, "Huh, I'm prone in my bed." Then I rolled over so that I could say to myself, "I'm now supine in my bed." At that point in my smug self-congratulatory mood, the dogs insisted that, if I were going to play vocabulary games, I was awake enough to get up and get to playing some REAL games, and that put an end to that. So I didn't have a chance to ponder whether I was also prostrate or, furthermore, recumbent.

First: Quick, without thinking too hard: when I was prone and then supine (pronounced suh-PINE or SOO-pine), which is face down and which is face up? I'll bet most people get this without realizing that they knew it. I'll answer in a moment, but next:

All four words mean lying down. (And there's another interesting phrase--would you ever be caught lying up? But I digress.) Ah, yes, the beauty of the English language--so many subtle variations on certain words to get exactly the nuance you're searching for. Is it scary that we have so many synonyms for just lying around?

Recumbent implies sleeping or resting; think of the recumbent bicycle, where one is in a relaxed, nearly horizontal position, although hopefully not sleeping, at least not while operating near heavy traffic.

Prostrate is not to be confused with one's prostate gland, although i wonder whether some people have a prostrate gland that makes them more inclined to spend time recumbent, say, when they should be washing the family pony? This word implies lying down full-length in defeat or submission.

Meanwhile, prone is, yes, you probably guessed it, face down. If you pay a little attention to the Latin sources of words, you might guess that "pro", meaning forward, plays a part in this word's formation. It's from the Latin pronus, meaning to lean forward. So imagine falling forward onto the ground; now you're prone.

And supine is the opposite; you're facing up. If you want a mnemonic for that, think sUPine. Also most likely from the Latin supinus, related to the prefix sup meaning, among other things, up (by means of being under)--think supplant which is equivalent to uproot.

Now, the next time you're snuggled up to someone special in bed, you can whisper fondly but knowledgeably into his or her ear, "I wonder whether there's a special word for 'lying on one's side'?" In my case, the dogs will most likely growl and go back to sleep.

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