GRE Vocab and the Seven Deadly Sins: Part V – Sloth

An early sixteenth century Dutch depiction of the seven deadly sins, by a follower of Heironymus Bosch.

In this, our latest post in the series GRE Vocab and the Seven Deadly Sins, we now turn to the sin of sloth and its corresponding heavenly virtue, diligence. You have probably heard of the animals known as sloths, most famously the Amazonian three-toed sloth, which moves so slowly that algae grows on its back. These creatures were actually named after the sin of sloth, which is most commonly construed as the sin of laziness; because sloths move so slowly, they were thought to be the very embodiment of this sin (even if moving is actually hard work if you’re a sloth). The word “sloth” itself derives from the Old English slowth, from which the word slow is also derived. A person guilty of the sin of sloth can be described as slothful. In Latin, however, this sin has changed names throughout its history, reflecting the changing interpretation of this sin in Catholic theology.

Originally, the sin of sloth was known as acedia and was defined as a kind of depression-like apathy that manifested itself as extreme inaction. It sometimes plagued ascetic monks and nuns, especially those who had taken vows of silence. Acedia was seen as a sin because it was believed to be a rejection of god’s gift of life and a failure to appreciate the goodness of life. In this sense, it might be appropriate to mention the word melancholy as being related to the sin of sloth. Over time, acedia was replaced by socordia, which focused more on physical and spiritual laziness, and the failure to make use of one’s god-given talents and abilities. Either way, the sin of sloth is unique among the seven deadly sins because it is the only sin defined by a lack of good actions rather than by the committing of bad actions: you can (and will) commit the sin of sloth by doing nothing at all.

You may be familiar with the animal species known as sloths, such as this rather contented looking three-toed one.

There are many excellent potential GRE vocab words in the English language that have to do with the sin of sloth, such as indolent, lackadaisical, languid, lethargic, supine, torpid, lassitude, oscitancy, sluggard, apathy, melancholy. The word indolent, for instance, means having or showing a disposition to avoid exertion, and derives from the Latin prefix in- and the verb dolere, which means to be painful. Someone indolent, or given to indolence, would act as if even thinking about hard work were extremely painful, and would thus be very slothful..

The word lackadaisical has a rather interesting etymology; it derives from the word “lackaday,” which is a corruption of the obsolete English phrase “alack the day,” an expression of regret, sorrow, dismay, or disapproval. Alack itself is derived from the English word alas, which comes from the Latin lassus, meaning weary. Today, lackadaisical means without interest, vigor, or determination – someone lackadaisical would act as if they were too tired or weary to put much effort into anything. Another word which derives from lassus is lassitude, which means weariness of body or mind, resulting in a lack of energy. It can also refer to a condition of indolent indifference, though, and thus laziness.

A figure from the church of St. Moritz in Rottenberg.

Similarly, languid, means lacking in vigor or vitality, and a related verb, languish, means to weaken, lose vigor and vitality, or undergo neglect. Interestingly, languid and languish derive from the Latin verb languere, to be faint or weak, which is related to the Latin adjective laxus, which means loose or relaxed. Languor is a similarly derived noun meaning lack of energy or vitality; sluggishness. Languor and languish came to English from French in the late 1200s, but languid was a later addition that came straight from Latin in the 1590s.

Lethargic is the adjective form of the noun lethargy, which is the quality of being drowsy, dull, or unenergetic. Lethargy comes from the Latin noun with the same meaning lethargia, which in turns derives from the Greek words lethe and algia. You may recall that Lethe was one of the five rivers which flowed through the underworld in classical mythology. Souls that drank the waters of the Lethe were granted complete forgetfulness of their past lives, which makes sense, since the Anicent Greek word lethe itself means forgetfulness or oblivion. Algia comes from the Greek word algos, which means pain. Lethargy was thus an unpleasant or painful drowsiness or lack of energy that dulled the mind and resulted in inaction through forgetfulness.

A detail from Breugel’s 1566 painting, Harvesters.

The adjective supine commonly refers to someone or something lying on its back while prone refers to something or someone lying on its front with its back in the air. Indeed, the word supine entered the English language in the 1490s directly from Latin, deriving from the adjective supinum, which means lying on the back or facing up. However, supine can also mean exhibiting inactivity or passivity. Someone supine, or lazy, would thus often be supine, or lying on his or her back all the time.

Torpid derives from the Latin torpere, which means to numb or stiffen (perhaps like a corpse exhibiting rigor mortis). It entered English directly from Latin in the early 1600s, and came to mean inactive, sluggish, or lethargic; presumably something numb and stiff would be inactive, so the evolution in meaning makes some sense. More interesting, perhaps, is the evolution of its etymological cousin, the word torpedo. Originally, in the 1520s, natural philosophers used the Latin root to invent the word torpedo as a name for electric rays and eels, because if you grabbed one, it would shock you and leave your hand stiff and numb. During the late 18th century, and especially during the French revolution that began in 1789 and the subsequent Napoleonic wars, a new maritime weapon was invented: floating mines called “torpedoes” after the electric fishes. Over time, these weapons developed into the underwater projectile explosives that we know as torpedoes today.

The dragon Fafner from Wagner’s opera Siegfried, as imagined by Arthur Rackham.

Oscitancy, or oscitance, refers to yawning, and derives from the synonymous Latin verb oscitare, which derives from the Latin os (mouth) and citare (to move or put in motion). Oscitancy and oscitance have also come to be associated with laziness and inattentiveness, since someone who yawns a lot might be prone to laziness. The adjective form would be oscitant, as in, “The knight caught a glimpse of the dragon’s long, gleaming fangs as it closed its oscitant maw.”

Sluggard is an old English word that dates back to the 1300s, when it was spelled slogarde. Before that it probably had a Scandinavian origin, as comparisons with the Norwegian word sluggje, which means a heavy or slow person, suggest. Similarly, in modern English a sluggard is a person who is habitually inactive or lazy. Sluggard is also related to the word sluggish, which means indisposed to action or exertion or lacking energy. Both sluggard and sluggish are related to the root word slug, which describes a snail-like gastropod with no shell that moves just as slowly as its shelled counterpart.

Come on, seriously?

Apathy is the absence or suppression of feeling, emotion, or excitement, and someone experiencing apathy can be called apathetic. Apathy derives from Ancient Greek, and is composed of the prefix a-, meaning without, and pathos, meaning feeling, specifically passion and suffering. Apathy thus literally refers to a lack of feeling. The English word pathos refers to the quality of art or expression that evokes a feeling of pity or compassion. The Greek pathos, when combined with prefixes and suffixes, has many different derivatives: antipathy, which means aversion or dislike; sympathy, which is harmony or agreement in feeling, especially sorrow; pathetic, which means causing or evoking pity or feelings; empathy, the act of understanding and then vicariously  experiencing another’s emotions or feelings; pathogen, a disease-causing agent (literally from the Greek pathos and gen, meaning something that causes suffering); pathology, the study of diseases. A psychopath is a person who displays amoral and antisocial behavior, lack of ability to love or establish meaningful personal relationships, and extreme egocentricity (from Greek psyche, soul, and path, pain, literally suffering soul).

The Iron Foundry by Adolph Menzel.

Enough of all this sloth – what we need is some diligence! According to the Catholic church, diligence is the heavenly virtue meant to combat the sin of sloth, since it entails steady, productive use of one’s time. Its Latin name is industria, from which we get the English words industry and industrious, which means hard-working. The word diligence is derived from the Latin verb diligere, which is in turn derived from the prefix dis-, which means apart, and the verb legere, which means “to choose” or “to read,” so that diligere means “to choose apart” or to prefer something. This evolved into our contemporary meaning by the following logic: if you prefer something, you like it a lot; if you like it a lot, you will take great care with it; if you are careful with something, then maybe you will put steady effort into looking after it; steady effort or work then became the accepted definition and the original meaning was forgotten.

The Gleaners, by Jean Francois Millet.

Two potential GRE words that have to do with the virtue of diligence include assiduous and sedulous. Assiduous comes from the Latin verb assidere, which means “to sit down,” which was the root of the Latin word assiduus, which has the meaning of constantly working, the logic being that you were sitting down to work. After entering English direct from Latin in the 1530s, it came to mean constant in application or effort, working diligently at a task, persevering, industrious, and attentive. Sedulous also entered the English language in the 1530s direct from the Latin word sedolo, which means honest or without deception. In English, it means diligent in application or attention, persevering, and assiduous, perhaps for the same reasons we talk about “an honest day’s work.”

That’s enough for today. Next time, we move on to the sin of envy. Remember, if you want extra help getting ready for the GRE, you can study with experts like me through Test Masters. Until next time, happy studying!

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