Saturday, July 7, 2007

Perseverating on perseverate

In my previous post on teenage boys with Asperger's Syndrome, I mentioned the psychological term of art, perseveration.

Eric astutely picked up on it, and posted this comment:
I find that word "perseverating" fascinating. Claudius tells Hamlet that his mourning for his father is unnatural: "To persever / In obstinate condolement is a course / Of impious stubbornness, 'tis unmanly grief..." Within 50 lines Hamlet goes into his most "perseverating" soliloquy, in which he keeps returning to the same thought--his mother married his uncle too quickly--like a dog biting at a wound. "Talking about one topic over and over" indeed.
I agree with Eric: There's something potent about that verb. For one thing, it carries the feeling of the action it describes; an almost onomatopoeic effect. Often, when writing about psychology, I tend toward everyday language, unless I'm writing for school. It's less pretentious and more comprehensible. But I felt in this case that the lovely technical term adds to the reader's understanding.

In delving a bit deeper, I verified what I have long suspected: The psychological field seems to have coined the verb. We all know what perservere means -- to continue against opposition or difficulty. But perseverate removes the opposition, and replaces it with an internal drive, an obsession, really (in both the colloquial and clinical senses). Webster's 10th Collegiate says that the term in question first appears as a verb in 1910 -- smack in the peak period of Freud's career. I formed a hunch thatan early psychiatrist can be credited for the useful mutation. Later, I found a Merriam-Webster Word of the Day post that confirmed this hunch. Score one for getting a masters degree. Now to find a way to pay my rent with etymological hunches...

Finally, for those still hankering, a fairly useful definition from

1. Uncontrollable repetition of a particular response, such as a word, phrase, or gesture, despite the absence or cessation of a stimulus (...)
2. The tendency to continue or repeat an act or activity after the cessation of the original stimulus.
A tip of the Thinkulous hat to Eric for adding the dimension of the Hamlet references, and for inspiring this bit of etymological perseveration.

1 comment:

Eric Little said...

Wow. You're welcome!