On Monday, I had a four-hour drive to South Carolina. Normally I dread these drives right until the moment they happen, at which point I realize I get to be 100% by myself for several hours and listen to whatever fabulous audiobook I want, and I’m delighted. This drive was different because this week is different. I’m doing something I’ve never done: Reading Deprivation.
Julia Cameron is telling me to do this, to not read for a whole week, for the sake of my own creativity. Other things she’s told me to do have worked out well, so. Part of the rationale: “Words are like tiny tranquilizers.” This is so true I can’t even hate it. It’s true enough that I wasn’t even tempted to rationalize an audiobook as “not really reading,” and so on my four hour drive, I started with music. And then…I can’t recall details of this transition, but me listening to NPR Music turned into me singing my own improv opera for an hour or so, an opera about Recent Inner Events. I got to a part where I needed to refer to Marshall Rosenberg’s theory of the progression from what he calls emotional slavery* to emotional liberation (roughly, “I am responsible for everyone else’s every emotion!” shifts to a nice calm “I am responsible to others but not for them; we are interdependent.”); what I sang about was the midpoint between those that he calls “the obnoxious stage” (“YOU’RE RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR FEELINGS, OKAY, EVERYONE?!”). I laughed out loud when I read about this stage a couple of weeks ago, because, I don’t know, maybe it rings a tiny deafening bell. Heads-up if you haven’t spoken with me in a while: things are obnoxious around here! Which, as contrasted with feeling terrible shame when anyone is upset, is awesome, but. Anyway, I got to the part in my improv opera about the obnoxious stage and I thought “HUH! Obnoxious! Noxious! What is ob- doing here? What meaning does it add?” And then my opera turned ob-sessed and I tried to think of every single word I could that starts with ob- (I recommend this) and I sang those one by one for quite some time. Until I ran out!
So here’s the fun thing: I couldn’t remember what I knew of ob- as a prefix…it felt like “to” or “toward” to me, but not firmly. And unlike “obnoxious” most ob- words don’t stand tidily on their own without the prefix (this is partly because ob- often assimilates, see below), so it’s harder to just infer a clear morphemic role while you’re driving to South Carolina. But: 1934 Webster’s International always has something to offer.
Of course I couldn’t remember a clear meaning for ob-. To! Or Against! Completely! Or Reversely! So, whatever. Just a nice thing to put up in front of a zillion roots (think of all the ob- words…and then think of all the oc-c like “occlude,” of-f like “offer” and op-p like “opportune” words. All still ob- at heart! It says it assimilates before g too, but I can’t think of an instance. Can you?).
Ok, so a hard prefix to pin down, but this is awesome:
As a resident of the late 20th and early 21st centuries, I only have experience with definition 4. And I figured that was what Marshall Rosenberg meant: when we stop feeling like we are in charge of other people’s feelings, the pendulum can swing way past “I’m not in charge, but I still can listen deeply for the unmet need and take ownership for harmful actions, as needed” to, obnoxiously, “your discomfort is your problem, people!” before levelling out. But LOOK AT 1 AND 3! In 1934, “obnoxious” meant subject, exposed, dependent (ob [to] noxa [harm]) which sounds like a tidy station between “slavery” and “liberation,” no? So I don’t know if Marshall Rosenberg is an amateur therapeutic lexicographer, or just lucky, or old enough to be in touch with 1934 definitions of things, but who cares? It’s super!
So in this instance, that’s the meaning ob- brings. “Noxious” by itself means harmful and all that; “obnoxious” started off meaning “subject to noxiousness” (harm), and now means something coincidentally similar to noxious (though it seems to me the route to that shift wasn’t just a dropping of the ob- meaning; rather, you were ob-noxious if you were exposed to harm, like harmful punishment, and you’re exposed to harmful punishment if you are a little shit, so obnoxious came to mean more “being a little shit.” Anyway, here’s “noxious,” for reference:
Isn’t it nice that “violent death” has its own Latin word?
And finally, another fun thing I came across in the course of this adventure:
This is funny to me because the Marshall Rosenberg stuff I mentioned is in the context of non-violent communication, where you practice communicating compassionately about observations, feelings, needs, and requests. If someday I nonviolently request “noxal surrender” from you, you better know what I mean, OKAY?!
*I don’t like the phrase “emotional slavery”; I’m bothered at the thought of equating difficult internal states (which may not be in our control but which we can make progress out of through our own agency) to a system of institutionalized physical servitude. Anne Lamott captures this state as “tying your umbilical cord around the person’s ankles.” Emotional umbilicality, then?