I was wondering, recently, if there were any differences between the words ‘reflexion’ and ‘reflection’. I knew they pretty much meant the same thing, but was wondering if the different spellings denoted nuanced differences in meaning or application. But it turns out that they do mean the same, with ‘reflexion’ being an alternative (British) spelling of ‘reflection’.

This entry from etymonline.com suggests that it is an archaic spelling:


My social scientist friends had introduced me to the word ‘reflexivity’ a while back. When used in the context of their discipline, this means:

“the fact of someone being able to examine his or her own feelings, reactions, and motives… and how these influence what he or she does or thinks in a situation…”

I like this word, ‘reflexivity’, and what it means. A lot of what I do in my mentoring work could be said to be reflexive. I certainly bring reflexivity to bear on my own reflexions on how I think and behave.

A stout man holds a full-grown crocodile aloft. he is a circus or sideshow performer.
Some people could do with examining their motives.

I enjoy etymology. The history of words fascinates me. Some words hold onto a similar definition throughout their lives, varying little in essential meaning from when they were introduced into the English language hundreds of years ago. Some, however, change tack radically over time and come to mean something quite different. For example, did you know that ‘bully’ originally meant ‘sweetheart’?

Thinking about the etymology of words can also highlight relationships between different words that, when seen in the clear light of day, can seem to be logical or even obvious but which can easily be forgotten or overlooked when we chuck those same words into the hurly-burly of day-to-day conversation.

Take, for example, the word I started with: ‘reflection / reflexion’. We know that this word can mean the sending back of light or the mirroring back of an image. And it has meant this since it appeared (spelt ‘reflexion’) in English in the 14th century. According to etymonline.com, it started to mean a review of thoughts – a looking into an interior mirror to see what one can see – sometime during the 1600s.

But etymonline.com tells us that the 14th century English ‘reflexion’ came to us from the Latin for ‘bending back’ and then refers us to the word ‘flexible’ with which it shares the Latin root word ‘flectere’. Flexible can mean being pliant in both mind and body, so its relation to ‘reflexion’ which can, hopefully, inspire a tendency to mentally move or adjust or bend as a result of reviewing one’s thoughts, makes sense.

The word ‘flex’ is apparently a back formation of ‘flexible’; this verb started being used in the 15th century. ‘Flex’ is most often used to describe physical actions, and I love that my etymological thought-exercise that started off with a cerebrally apposite word like ‘reflexion’ leads me to a muscular-sounding cheeky brute of a word like ‘flex’.

Why do I like doing this? Because thinking deeply about the words I use, the ways and contexts in which I use them, and the gut reactions I have to their etymologies is one of my favourite tools for reflexivity. When reflecting deeply on the how and why of my actions, thoughts, and reactions I like to work up an intellectual or imaginative or emotional sweat.

In short, reflexivity makes my brain flex. It keeps me fit and agile.

The words we use have weird and wonderful histories. What can these tell us about ourselves? Join me for a creative, reflective, and quietly fun conversation to reflect on the buzzwords we use at The Etymology Game.

Duration – 1 hour

Cost – $25.00

Delivered via Zoom.

Bookings limited and essential. To book or to find more information, please check out my events calendar.

A contortionist
Contortionist Joseph Clark

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