To explain is to provide an answer to the question: why?
The word explain originates from the Latin action word planus, meaning level, smooth or flat, and its later cousin explanare1. Ex meaning out, the word explanare means to make level and flatten out2.
Explain first appeared in the English language between 1375 and 1425, in the form of explanen2. It then became explane, until the conception and influence of the word plain2. This change was significant to the word’s meaning, enforcing it as something clear and easily understood, as though laid out and flattened. Until the 17th century, the word was used literally, in reference to its Latin origin, as the unfolding of material things1. It then gained the meaning of making something plain and clear in the consideration of not only physical objects but more so events and ideas1. In the context of laying out cards, to explain became not only to spread something out on a flat surface, but also to make it intelligible and clear, and answer uncertainties relevant to the situation.
To explain is to provide a reason for and to justify, usually a set of actions, words, or ideas3. In many situations, the explainer is also the one who committed the actions or uttered the words under judgement. An explanation can therefore act as a validation of ones own decisions, and an attempt to justify and provide acceptable reason behind one’s actions. The explanation can be true or false, and is authenticated based on whether or not the listener believes it. In this regard, to explain is not necessarily to provide an answer that is factual and accurate, but to provide one that can be understood, accepted, and seen logical by the audience.
Often, explaining involves providing false accounts that make situations seemingly clear to the listener, and an attempt to justify poor decisions. Society seems to have mastered the art of creating reason without having to confess the truth. However, by offering these untrue answers to the infinitely applicable question why?, the need for more explaining is only elevated, as explaining originates from the quest to seek the truth even if it is not what one originally receives.
Explain is also related to the Medieval English word pel, from which planus was derived, meaning a bell peal, specifically one that summons people to church3. Churches – regardless of the specific religions they house – are places where people seek answers they cannot find elsewhere. Places where explanations are given to their lives’ greatest questions. With the countless religions that exist as a testament, it is obvious that an answer found in one church is not universally true and factual in the confines of other churches. The explanation received is validated much more by faith than facts and scientific proof. The church bell summons believers to receive an explanation to their most significant whys? as it provides them with an answer that they can accept, validate, and comprehend as the truth.
On account of our curious nature and desire for understanding, explanations appear as a common need in the majority of human activities and interactions. But, regardless the circumstances at hand, whenever we explain we are always giving an answer – true or false – to the question: why?.
1. Explain. Etymonline.com. Etymology Online. Dan McCormack. http://www.etymonline.com/index.php?allowed_in_frame=0&search=explanation&searchmode=none
2. Explain. Dictionary.com. Online Etymology Dictionary. Douglas Harper, Historian. http://dictionary.reference.com/etymology/explanation (accessed: November 09, 2012).
3. Explain. Dictionary.com. n/a. http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/explanation