Friday, September 22, 2017

ELL vocabulary - dependence

Dependence is today's word, a noun.  I thought I would write about dependence as I poured my third cup of coffee, trying to get rid of my persistent sleepiness.  The definition of dependence is:


The state of relying on or being controlled by someone or something else.

Dependence has a specific meaning in medicine--what you rely on, what you are controlled by, is a drug.  I have a dependence on coffee because I am reliant on the drug caffeine, which coffee contains.  (I am not really controlled by caffeine.)  But I rely on the caffeine in coffee.  I need it to feel awake.  For that reason, I am dependent on coffee.

Dependence comes to us from the Latin "de," meaning "from," + the Latin "pendere," "to hang."  So to depend is to hang from.  If I'm hanging from coffee, then, I'm relying on it.  It is a leap in meaning to go from "hanging from" to "relying on," but that's the figurative nature of language: One idea gives birth to another.  

More about dependence meaning "hanging":

The chandeliers depend from the ceiling.  The chandeliers hang from the ceiling.

The children depend from the monkey bars.  The children hang from the monkey bars.

She depends on her mother for support.  She hangs on her mother for support.

Do you see how "depend" can mean both literal hanging, as with the chandeliers and the children, as well as figurative hanging, as with the woman who depends on her mother for support?  Or, in my case, as I depend on caffeine to wake up?

A chandelier.  See the chain at the top?  The chandelier depends from the chain.
No, I don't actually hang from caffeine.  But I figuratively hang from it--if caffeine were not there, I would suffer.  If the ceiling weren't there, the chandelier would fall.  If the monkey bars weren't there, the children would fall.  They depend on the monkey bars.

A boy hanging from, or dependent from, monkey bars.
What about you?  How many of you are dependent on caffeine?  So many?  You have a dependence on caffeine.  

Here's a more serious question:  How many of you have a more serious dependence?  I don't mean a dependence on exercise, or on watching television, or on your iPhone.  I mean a dependence that is harmful, such as a dependence on violence, or a dependence on cigarettes, or a dependence on street drugs?  

"Alcohol is the most commonly used addictive substance in the United States: 17.6 million people, or one in every 12 adults, suffer from alcohol abuse or dependence along with several million more who engage in risky, binge drinking patterns that could lead to alcohol problems."  That's from the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence, Inc.

Note that dependence does not usually connote a reliance on something that's healthy and natural.  We all rely on sleep, but we are not dependent on it.  We rely on food, but we don't call that a dependence on food.  Dependence is reserved for chemicals and behaviors for which we have an unhealthy need.

But coffee, even up to five cups a day, isn't unhealthy.  So why do we call it a dependence?  Perhaps because we aren't born with a dependence on coffee, the way we're born with a dependence on sleep, food, and love.  Perhaps because, in medicine, dependence usually means reliance on a drug.  But it's a subtle difference.

What, if anything are you dependent on?  What do you rely on to get through your day?  Chewing gum?  Using your iPhone?  Doing the daily crossword puzzle?  

And . . . is your dependence healthy or unhealthy?

Or do you still have a dependence on your daily trip to the playground so that you can hang from the monkey bars?

The English Avocado


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