I’ve been thinking a lot about the word settle, lately. There are so many different ways in which it is used nowadays that it got me thinking about its origins.
There’s the verb, to settle, as in making a home somewhere or coming to an agreement, as in settling an argument or reaching a legal settlement like in a divorce or a strike. Paying a debt, settling up. Clearing, as in waiting until the dust settles, or the chemistry sense where particles settle out of solution. And a lot of others.
And then there’s the noun, settler, a person who made a home somewhere by settling in. Or someone who reached an agreement or helped others to reach one.
But mostly I’ve been thinking of it when it’s used negatively to describe a situation in our lives, when we settle for less than we deserve. That’s what a lot of blogs nowadays are trying to tell us, especially the ones around achieving success. “Don’t settle for less than ________ fill in the blank. And the implication is that settling is a bad thing. Only unsuccessful people, under achievers settle.
So let’s see how this came to be. Get a little data, if you will.
The Online Etymology Dictionary tells us that settle, the noun is derived from: “long bench,” 1550s, from Middle English setle “a seat,” from Old English setl “a seat, stall; position, abode; setting of a heavenly body,” related to sittan “to sit,” from Proto-Germanic *setla– (cognates: Middle Low German, Middle Dutch setel, Dutch zetel, German Sessel, Gothic sitls), from PIE *sedla– (cognates: Latin sella “seat, chair,” Old Church Slavonic sedlo “saddle,” Old English sadol “saddle”), from root *sed– (1) “to sit”
The verb form of settle has the following derivations: “come to rest,” Old English setlan “cause to sit, place, put,” from setl “a seat” (see settle (n.)). Related: Settling. Compare German siedeln “to settle, colonize.”
From c.1300 of birds, etc., “to alight.” From early 14c. as “sink down, descend; cave in.” Early 15c. in reference to suspended particles in a liquid. Sense of “establish a permanent residence” first recorded 1620s; that of “decide” is 1620s. Meaning “secure title to by deed” is from 1660s.
Meaning “reconcile” (a quarrel, differences, etc.) perhaps is influenced by Middle English sahtlen “to reconcile,” from Old English saht “reconciliation,” from Old Norse satt “reconciliation.” To settle down “become content” is from 1853; transitive sense from 1520s; as what married couples do in establishing domesticity, from 1718. To settle for “content oneself with” is from 1943.
So this word has been with us in our English language since at least the 1300s and probably earlier than that.
At Wiktionary, they tell us that as a noun, the first meaning is archaic, meaning a seat of any kind. That makes perfect sense as many of the root forms above are about sitting, including saddle. I like that. Settle is related to saddle. Makes sense given how we humans like to change the spelling and meanings of words based on similar sounds. Who knew? But basically, it’s a seat, stall, position, abode, and setting of a heavenly body. I forgot about that one. Makes me wonder if Moonset and Sunset are really shortened forms of the Moon or Sun settling below the horizon. I can easily see how calling it Sun settle would ultimately result in shortening to sunset.
The next meaning is: A long bench, often with a high back and arms, with storage space underneath for linen. This one reminds me very much of a piece of furniture I grew up with. We had this wooden high back seat in our entry hallway, which also had arms on the side, was wide enough for 2 grownups or 3 kids to sit on and remove their shoes or wet boots. The top of the seat was hinged and there was a storage space underneath it where we often put our gloves and scarves and such. Very handy. And then on the floor under that, we had a mat to put the dirty or wet shoes on. Here’s a picture I found on eBay of a monk’s bench for sale. It looked kind of like this bench only was a bit wider and didn’t have the little shelf underneath. So apparently, I actually grew up with a settle.
But I digress as I usually do. The 3rd meaning of the noun, in Wiktionary is: “A place made lower than the rest; a wide step or platform lower than some other part” and is obsolete. The example of its use is taken from the Bible. Ok, don’t get me started on the Bible and obsolescence! We’ll leave that one be. But there it is again, that sense of lower or less than.
The verb form has 11 transitive and 11 intransitive meanings! That’s a lot of variety for a single word!
It seems that many of these refer to a coming down, a lower platform, a sense of sinking, the result of negotiating for less than you originally asked for. And that seems to be the way I see it used more often than not. Very common in advertising – “Don’t settle for less!”
It’s like we forgot that it has a lot of other very positive meanings too. Reaching an agreement, calming or pacifying, rendering quiet, making sure of, establishing, balancing, making permanent, entering into the married state, freeing from uncertainty, and others.
This is the way I’d like to start using and thinking about settling. Not as a giving in to someone else’s demands or taking less than I deserve or sinking lower, but rather as a path to harmony and agreement. Peaceful resolution. Calming. Let’s face it, we could certainly use a lot more settling in this world today. That would be a good thing. Especially here in BC where there’s a very difficult teacher’s strike underway, with our government and the teacher’s union at an impasse in trying to reach a settlement. And let’s not even talk about all the international conflicts currently unsettling global peace.
And no, I certainly won’t settle for being taken hostage by unreasonable abusive people, or give in to unreasonable demands if I’m on strike. And I won’t settle for less than I deserve when I render a service to someone, unless I choose to gift it to them.
I’d just like to see more of the settling that makes us comfortable in our respective saddles, gives us a bit of clarity while riding off into the sun settlings, making peaceful, harmonious homes for our families. Sitting on our settles when we come home after a hard day’s work or play.
Do you think you could settle for that? I certainly could.
Settling in until the next thing moves me to ramble,