There is a lovely irony to the fact that no one really understands how the English language got the word “understand.”

It is an odd word – “to stand under.” How did standing under become associated with the concept of comprehension?

The short answer is: no one knows. The Online Etymology Dictionary goes to unusual lengths in its attempt to make sense of the word, but in the end has to admit that the origins of this curious word are lost in the shadows of linguistic history:

understand (v.) Look up understand at
Old English understandan “comprehend, grasp the idea of,” probably literally “stand in the midst of,” from under + standan “to stand” (see stand (v.). If this is the meaning, the under is not the usual word meaning “beneath,” but from Old English under, from PIE *nter- “between, among” (cognates: Sanskrit antar “among, between,” Latin inter “between, among,” Greek entera “intestines;” see inter-). Related: Understood; understanding.

That is the suggestion in Barnhart, but other sources regard the “among, between, before, in the presence of” sense of Old English prefix and preposition under as other meanings of the same word. “Among” seems to be the sense in many Old English compounds that resemble understand, such as underniman “to receive,” undersecan “examine, investigate, scrutinize” (literally “underseek”), underðencan “consider, change one’s mind,” underginnan “to begin.” It also seems to be the sense still in expressions such as under such circumstances.

Perhaps the ultimate sense is “be close to;” compare Greek epistamai “I know how, I know,” literally “I stand upon.” Similar formations are found in Old Frisian (understonda), Middle Danish (understande), while other Germanic languages use compounds meaning “stand before” (German verstehen, represented in Old English by forstanden “understand,” also “oppose, withstand”). For this concept, most Indo-European languages use figurative extensions of compounds that literally mean “put together,” or “separate,” or “take, grasp” (see comprehend). Old English oferstandan, Middle English overstonden, literally “over-stand” seem to have been used only in literal senses. For “to stand under” in a physical sense, Old English had undergestandan.

That is a lot of words to say, “We don’t really ‘understand’ this word.” And this just may be the most important thing to say about my ability to “comprehend” or make sense of most of life. The truth is I do not understand a great deal of what I experience in this life.

Frequently, I do not understand myself. I am often unable to make sense of the choices and actions of other people. I do not understand history or most of current affairs.

And yet… I confess that, more times than I can count, I find myself in an exasperated tone declaring, “I do not understand.” I feel my forehead furrow with the exertion of my little brain to bring some kind of rationality into whatever peculiar reality I happen to be struggling to make sense of.

At the end of the book of Job, after 37 chapters in which Job and his counselors have struggled to make sense of Job’s experience, God finally shows up and speaks. The writer says,

 Then the Lord answered Job out of the whirlwind. (Job 38:1)

But it is a curious kind of “answer”. God does not provide tidy solutions to the conundrum of Job’s life. Instead, at the end of the Book of Job, God offers an unrelenting barrage of unanswerable questions. God poses 63 questions, none of which Job is able to answer.

The human capacity for comprehension is hemmed in on every side by limitations. The only time the word “understand” should really appear in a sentence is when it comes in the statement, “I do not understand.”

The point of the Book of Job is to drive us to acknowledge the limitations of human comprehension. The only appropriate response to the mysteries that abound, is to sit in the midst of the mess and confusion of life and allow my heart to break open. Here I discover within myself a deeper reality where all my confusion is held with grace and compassion.