Q: A lot of people (including me!) use the word “feel” to describe thinking, as in “I feel there’s a Starbucks on every corner.” Why is this? Is it here to stay? Where does it come from?
A: Using “feel” to mean “think” or “believe” is very common and quite legitimate. This usage has been around for a lot longer than Starbucks.
But your example offers a subtle variation on that theme. Although we’ve occasionally heard this usage, it’s less familiar to us.
We’re more familiar with uses like “I feel you’re avoiding me,” or “They feel they’re not being treated fairly.” Here, a speaker uses “feel” to convey a conviction about a subjective reality. This is the traditional use of “feel,” the one that gets hundreds of millions of hits on Google.
On the other hand, in a sentence like “I feel that guy just ran a red light,” or “I feel there’s a nail salon on every block,” the speaker uses “feel” to express a conviction (whether exaggerated or not) about an objective reality. This use of “feel” is what’s unusual to us.
Will it catch on? We can’t say. But what we can do is explain how “feel” came to be used to mean “think” or “believe.”
When the verb “feel” was first recorded in Old English in the 900s, it meant to handle—to examine or explore by touch. And that’s still one of its meanings.
But almost immediately the word took on several wider, more figurative, meanings.
Even during the Old English period, according to citations in the Oxford English Dictionary, to “feel” meant “to perceive mentally, become aware of.”
Somewhat later, around the late 1200s, it came to mean “to be conscious of (a subjective fact)” or “be the subject of, experience (a sensation, emotion), entertain (a conviction).”
In the Middle Ages, for example, people used phrases like “feel feeble,” “feel well,” and “feel friendship.” One OED citation from 1393, “feleth he ful ofte guile,” or roughly “he feels full of guile,” is translated by the OED as “finds himself deceived.”
In various later usages, people in the 17th through 18th centuries were said to “feel a loss,” “feel emotion,” “feel woes,” “feel curiosity,” and “feel little inconvenience.”
And in the 19th century people began using constructions like “I do not feel like eating,” “I now feel like ending the matter,” “I feel indebted to you,” “I don’t feel myself,” “I did not feel up to much fatigue,” “felt some misgivings,” “felt the influence,” “feel vengeance,” and so on.
The sense we’re getting at—described in the OED as “to believe, think, hold as an opinion”—was first recorded in the late 1300s.
The OED’s earliest citation for this sense of the word is from a 1382 quotation by Nicholas Hereford, who collaborated with John Wycliffe on the first complete English translation of the Bible: “We were required to seyne what we felyde of diverse conclusions.”
In modern usage, the OED says, to “feel” in this sense means “to apprehend or recognize the truth of (something) on grounds not distinctly perceived; to have an emotional conviction of (a fact).”
One of the OED’s citations for this modern sense is from Anthony Trollope’s novel Barchester Towers (1861): “She felt that she might yet recover her lost ground.”
They say that seeing is believing. And it’s long been true that feeling is believing as well.
Of course, we still feel good, bad, or groovy, which gets us to Simon and Garfunkel’s “The 59th St. Bridge Song”:
Slow down, you move too fast
You got to make the morning last
Just kicking down the cobblestones
Looking for fun and feelin’ groovy
Ba da da da da da da, feelin’ groovy
(Paul Simon’s book Lyrics 1964-2011 doesn’t use punctuation at the end of these lines.)
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