I am reading a most interesting book: The Etymologicon: A Circular Stroll Through the Hidden Connections of the English Language by Mark Forsyth. The title tells you all you need to know about the book. Forsyth takes his readers on a lovely jaunt on the intertwining trails and pathways—and dead-ends—of our continuously evolving language.
He clarifies misconceptions about some words and phrases. For example, according to Forsyth, Dr. Joseph-Ignace Guillotin did not invent the guillotine, as is widely rumoured. When the family name got attached to the device, the Guillotins were so mortified, they changed their name.
He also gives the background of how words evolved into their present form. I’m a baseball fan, so I was interested to learn that an umpire began as the Latin non-par, for not on a par with the sport participants. It changed to a noumpere in Old French, and then at some point the N got moved over from the second word to the first and became an umpire.
Forsyth’s description of the origins of the expression aim high caught my attention. I had always understood the expression to mean a person should set lofty goals and not settle for second best, but that’s not the case. He writes:
“The funny thing about archery is that you don’t usually aim at the target. Gravity decrees that if you aim straight at the blank, your arrow will hit somewhere below. So you point the arrow somewhere above the blank, and hope that this cancels out the effects of Newton’s troublesome invention. That’s why aim high is another archer’s term; it doesn’t mean you’ll end up high, or it’s not meant to. You aim high and hit on the level.”
His explanation is somewhat reassuring, isn’t it? Thinking metaphorically, the plain old “Aim high!” used as a self-help affirmation for the achievement of lofty goals doesn’t allow for the effect that forces beyond our control might have on our efforts. If we aim high, and if we keep our eye on the high goal, when we hit below that mark, we feel like failures.
But if we aim high with the understanding that outside forces will affect us, when we hit short of that mark, it’s not a failure at all. We hit exactly where we should be.
Aim high, with an archer’s aim.