Problem

I was very surprised recently when someone asked me why this word is used in other languages. “Obviously,” the speaker said, “they took it from English!” I thought at first that this had to be a joke, but no. It was completely serious.

The word problem in this form is indeed English today, just as many other words that started out in other languages are also English. But it did not originate in English. We find our earliest references for it in English in the 14th century, in Middle English. This example is taken from the Wycliffite Bible, from 1382:

Þei seidyn to þe wif of Sampson, ‘fage to þi man & moeue hym þat he schewe to þee what betokneþ þe probleme (Judg.14.15)

They said to Sampson’s wife “go to your husband and get him to show you what the problem signifies.”

As you can see, its form here is more or less the same as today: probleme. But apart from its modern meaning, it could also mean a riddle, a mathematical problem, a puzzle, a difficulty or a scientific question that invited investigation. In this respect, it has changed.

The Middle English word came from Old French problème, the same form as in Modern French today. It was contributed to French by Latin, from the form problema, which in turn came from the Greek πρόβλημα – it is a bone of contention as to whether this should be pronounced /provlima/ as in Modern Greek, or /problima/. Unfortunately, there are no native speakers of Ancient Greek left around to ask!

Now, let’s examine the components of the word. It is made up of two elements: προ + βλήμα (pro + blima). The first element is seen in a number of other words, and means “front, forward, before”. Moving onto the second part of the word, we find that it comes from a verb: βάλλω. This is the source of another word that we readily recognize in English: ballistics. This might give you a clue as to what it meant, as it was ‘throw’. (In Modern Greek it means ‘put, place’.)

So in problem we have “thing that is thrown forward”. This could indeed be a problem in its modern sense! And it is one of those words that has travelled around the world, with examples such as French problème, Italian problema, Russian проблема, Welsh problem, to name but a few.

2 thoughts on “Problem

  1. very interesting, thank you. when i was learning about masculine and feminine nouns in french i was taught that those that had a greek origin (such as “problème”, “thème” etc) would usually be masculine, while those that originated in latin (supposedly – would be grateful for any insight you have on this) such as “solution” and other –tion words would be feminine. of course this meant my french teacher could make the HILARIOUS joke that “problems are male and solutions are female”

    • That seems a very odd sort of comment to make on gendered nouns. There are plenty of masculine nouns in French of Latin origin – le livre, for example. It is true that -tion words are feminine.

      As a very general rule, I notice that words of Greek origin that are neuter in Greek, such as problem, system, theme, etc, tend to be masculine in the languages that adopt them. Feminine Greek nouns, such as method, retain their feminine gender in French but become masculine in other languages (Italian: il metodo). So really, there’s no way to tell!

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