Here is a word that has travelled a long way! These days, the most common use of the word is to convey the idea of “filling with positive energy, animating with a particular idea, having a positive effect on somebody’s intellect”, or similar.
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary has “to make someone want to do something” as its first definition (you can see the others here). Similarly, the definition in Macmillan Dictionary starts with “to give someone the enthusiasm to do or create something”.
So it seems that today the word is mostly understood in terms of effects of thoughts, desires and so on.
But this was not always the case. It started out as a religious word. The Oxford English Dictionary tells us: “the word was originally used of a divine or supernatural being, in the sense ‘impart a truth or idea to someone’.” The gospel writers, for example, were said to have been inspired.
If we go back to the mid 14th century, we can find the form enspiren, alongside inspiren. Here is an example from 1390 from the Pistel of Swete Susan, a biblical story in the form of alliterative poetry:
Preye we to god vr soules enspire
(We pray that god may inspire our souls)
This Middle English form was from a 13th century Old French form; enspirer. This in turn came from Latin inspirare, which meant “to blow into”. It is made up of two elements; in + spirare. The first part, as we have seen before, means “into”, while the second means “blow”. Interestingly, this form is itself a loan-translation, or a direct use of equivalent word-components in order to convey a meaning from a foreign language; in this case Greek term πνέω (pneo), meaning “breathe”, but used in a religious sense in the Bible.
So, from breathe to blow into to positive intellectual effect. An interesting journey indeed!
While we are talking about religious senses of words, you may recognise the second element of inspire in another word often used in a religious context; spirit. It is, of course from the Latin root, meaning “breathe, blow”.