Printable Version
Pronunciation: in-kêm-bêr Hear it!

Part of Speech: Verb

Meaning: 1. To burden in such a way as to restrict movement or other activity, as a heavy backpack might encumber us, or heavy debt encumbers our lives. 2. To block passage, to interfere with movement as brush growing in a trail might encumber hikers.

Notes: The rather common noun for this verb is encumbrance which, in legal circles, can refer to a lien against property. (Don't forget to drop the second E!) Liens can be seen as restrictions on legal movement. Otherwise, this verb behaves like a native verb, with the participle, encumbering, used as the active noun and adjective. Remember, all these words begin with an E, not an I, despite the pronunciation.

In Play: In the first sense of today's word, we may say things like: "Encumbered by genetic laziness, Frieda Fish slumped back on the couch and decided to clean up the kitchen tomorrow." We may use it in its second sense like this: "Marvin picked his way through the toys on the floor until he reached a less encumbered hall."

Word History: Today's Good Word comes to us from Old French encombrer "to block up, hinder, thwart", inherited from Late Latin incombrare, made up of in- "in(to), on(to)" + combrus "barricade, obstacle". Combrus is akin to Latin cumulus "a heap, pile, mound", which it picked up from PIE ku-m-olo- "pile, heap", a suffixed short form of the root keuê- "to swell; cave, hole". Meteorologists use cumulus to refer to a rounded mass of clouds, snowy white at the top with a darker bottom. We also see it in accumulate "to acquire heaps", also borrowed from Latin. Keuê- without the suffixes went into the making of Latin cavus "hollow", which shows up in the English borrowings cave, concave, and cavity. Greek also seems to have split the same PIE word into two families of words referring to hollows or swellings: koos "cavity", but kuein "to swell" and kuma "a swelling, wave".

Dr. Goodword,

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