• harrowing •
hæ-ro-wing • Hear it!
Part of Speech: Adjective
Meaning: Extremely distressful, painful, frightening, disturbing, stressful.
Notes: Here we have a word meaning "extremely frightening or upsetting", but its origin, to harrow, has not kept up semantically with its participle. It comes with a personal noun which may mean "someone who causes stress", but is rarer than the verb itself, to harrow. We are free to use it as an adverb, so long as we add the adverbial suffix, harrowingly.
In Play: The fundamental meaning of today's Good Word is "causing stress": "Phil Ander's had a harrowing date with June McBride last night." I would guess he should avoid Susan Liddy-Gates at all costs. Since this sense of harrowing is already figurative, it cannot be made figurative: "Her friendship with Constance Waring was a harrowing experience as long as it lasted."
Word History: Today's Good Word is derived from the verbal use of the farm machine, the harrow. Harrows are used after "bottom plowing", which leaves great clods of earth too big for planting. A harrow, a large rake pulled behind a tractor, has a row or bed of teeth that break up these clods. This reduces the cloddy earth to soil that is fine enough for seeding. This word, used as a verb, first meant "breaking up the soil", but then came to be used figuratively to mean "breaking up people" in the sense we have today. In Old English it was hergian "to make war, ravage", the word the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles used to describe what the Vikings did to England. Hergian comes from PIE koro- "war, army", which turns up in Lithuanian kara "host, army", Greek koiranos "commander, leader" and also English harry. (Lest we visit a harrowing experience on Jackie Straus, let us now thank her for recommending today's fascinating Good Word.)
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