The Grammarphobia Blog

Now bear with me

Q: I recently used “bring to bear” in an email and ended up staring at the phrase for a considerable time, wondering if it should be “bear” or “bare.” After googling it, I find that “bear” is the correct spelling, but now I’m wondering if the noun and the verb “bear” are related?

A: No, the verb “bear” is entirely unrelated to the noun for the big furry animal.

The two words come from prehistoric Indo-European roots that are spelled alike (bher), but the roots are unrelated etymologically and mean different things.

In ancient times, the verb “bear” had two meanings: to carry a burden or to give birth, according to John Ayto’s Dictionary of Word Origins. The verb gained new senses as it was passed down to Sanskrit, Greek, Latin, and the Germanic and Indo-Iranian languages.

Today it has 20 or more meanings in English, including to carry (“A burro can bear 200 pounds”); to endure (“He couldn’t bear the grief”); to support (“The beam will bear two tons”); to proceed (“Please bear to the left”); to give birth (“She hopes to bear a child”); to produce (“Those trees will bear fruit”), and so on.

The expression “bring to bear,” which originally meant to bring about, has been around since the 18th century, when Samuel Richardson used it in his novel Clarissa (1748): “Your cousin … had with difficulty brought this meeting to bear.”

The expression now means to exert, apply, or put to use, as in “Let’s bring pressure to bear on the mayor.”

Interestingly, “bear” has two past participles, depending on the meaning you want. We use “borne” for most meanings, but “born” for passive constructions referring to birth. So we say, “The weight was borne upon his back,” and “She has borne three children,” but “The children were born in Cincinnati.”

And by the way, the noun for the furry creature comes from a primitive root bher meaning “brown” or “bright.” This root gave us the words “brown,” “bear” (the animal), “bruin” (the poetic name for a bear), “beaver” (another brown animal), “brunet,” and “burnish.”

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