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
Solitary mind:on isolation and islands

Solitary mind:on isolation and islands

“No man is an island”, John Donne famously wrote.

When I looked up the etymology of ‘island’ I was surprised to find that it has a different etymology to the word ‘isle’: ‘island’ has roots in Old English; it has always meant land surrounded by water. ‘Isle’ traces its ancestry back to the Latin  insula, which meant ‘island’.

Insula also features in the etymology of our modern word ‘insular’, which traveled from meaning ‘pertaining to or of an island’ in the 1600s to ‘being cut off from other people’ in the 1700s.

The other word that can trace its roots back to insula is ‘isolated’:

“standing detached from others of its kind”, 1740, a rendering into English of French isolé “isolated” (17c.), from Italian isolato, from Latin insulatus “made into an island,” from insula “island.”

(From etymonline.com)

Another etymology I am interested in is that of the world ‘alone.’ Its meaning hasn’t altered at all in its history; it has always meant to be by one’s self, solitary. What I love about it though – what I find quite poetic – is that our modern spelling of alone is a contraction of all ane from the Old English all ana.

All one. By your own and one self. Wholly alone.

Recently, we have all been in lockdown. Some of us have been squished into living quarters shared with flatmates or family members. So, isolated from the world at large but far from being wholly alone. Some people have been living by themselves; whether or not this solitude has been glorious or something akin to solitary confinement will have depended upon the person experiencing it and the conditions under which they were isolated.

Donne wrote “No man is an island” in the winter of 1623, while he was recovering from a life threatening illness. In the spiritual aloneness of a near-death experience, he wrote a reflective prose work of which this is one part:

“No man is an island,
entire of itself;
every man is a piece of the continent,
a part of the main.
If a clod be washed away by the sea,
Europe is the less,
as well as if a promontory were.
as well as if a manor of thy friend’s
or of thine own were.
Any man’s death diminishes me,
because I am involved in mankind;
and therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
it tolls for thee.”

All of us, whether hunkered down in little groups or all-one, will have been aware of our society grappling with the Coronavirus beyond the four walls of our accommodation; our isolation has happened in the context of a communal emergency. Domestically, we have been functioning as little self-contained home units; we are islands. Some people have been able to sense themselves as islands belonging to a nation; some will have lost the sense of this. How are we to reconnect with them? Why might they find it hard to maintain a sense of belonging?

Involved in mankind.

Donne was able to contextualise his individual illness and possible death as a universal experience. We have all been forced to isolate from each other, but this has been in the name of a societal – as well as individual – good. People are talking about the fact that our world has irrevocably changed because of the pandemic, that things will never return to normal. That’s fine with me; the ‘old normal’ all too often operated as if everyone was all one, was not a piece of something larger. I’d like a ‘new normal’ where we all consider ourselves to be “involved in mankind.” Where no man is an island.


No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.

From Devotions upon Emergent Occassions and severall steps in my Sicknes, Meditation 17, written in the winter of 1623.

(Donne’s original spelling and punctuation)