Drifting: An Etymological Look at the Place Between Stillness and Motion


Guest contributor Jacquelyn Rupp is the author of Soul Studies: Etymology and Story. In this essay, Rupp explores how understanding the words that describe how we feel can help us better understand our own thoughts and feelings.


With reasonable certainty, I think feeling rather directionless or adrift at almost-24 is a pretty universal experience. Of all of the early- mid-twenty-somethings that I know, I can think of exactly zero people who are totally confident that what they’re doing is “What They’re Meant to Be Doing”. If you’re in that boat, I’m trying to trail in your wake. The sensation of the drift, of the lingering-and-then-rushing pull, can feel pretty haphazard. So when things feel haphazard, I turn to language.

Drift, in English, has kind of a dichotomous and frictional etymology. As a noun – like “a drift of snow” – it came from the Proto-Germanic driftiz, meaning “to drive, push”. In the early thirteen century, it was literally “a be[ing] driven”; a few decades later, the connotation had evolved to mean a sense of “what one is getting at”. Drift had a craving for clarity.

But as a verb, drift has a figurative sense of “be[ing] passive and listless”. In adjectives, if one is “adrift”, they are understood to be without purpose or guidance –they are taken to be generally lost and confused. We could say that they are being driven by things incomprehensible and outside their control – but mostly, I feel that drifting is about the tension between stillness and movement.

If you’re like me, when you think of drifting, it’s usually something or someone on top of water. Driftwood, for example, is the remains of trees that have been washed into the ocean and then washed onto a shore or beach via winds, tides or waves. Technically, it is defined as marine debris – waste, for lack of a more positive word.

Yet according to Norse mythology, the first humans, Ask and Emblas, were formed out of two pieces of driftwood by the god Odin and his brothers, Vili and Ve. From driftwood came the source of all life, the source of humanity. And driftwood carried by Arctic rivers was sometimes the only source of wood – survival in no uncertain terms – for some Inuit and other Arctic populations north of the tree line. It sparked fires, which sparked life.

There is also drifting in driving, with sleek, thousand-pound race cars. Drifting is a driving technique where the driver intentionally oversteers, causing a loss of traction while still magically maintaining control. Born in Japan, drifting has grown into something sexy, glamorous: it even has its own documentary, “High Performance Imports Volume 10”. With this socio-etymological perspective, drifting becomes something to be achieved, something you do on purpose.

Drifting requires movement – there is pushing, there is driving. But there is also listlessness; there is washing onto shore, or washing away into water. The movement is passive, without motivation, arguably without direction. For me, the emotional compulsion when I’m feeling adrift is to go still, to pause. When I am unsure of direction, I don’t want to take off; aimless becomes a four-letter-word, uncertainty a curse. But no one can stop time, and so the movement happens regardless. I move into a new job, I move into a new house, I move into my marriage. Welcome movements, but also movements that sometimes seem too big for me: am I enough for this?

In my writing and in my brain, I always find immense comfort in language. I love that although drifting can be directionless, it also is life-giving in its earliest iterations. It was, in some stories, the beginnings of all life. Everyone has experienced change and transition; everyone has experienced fear and uncertainty; my story is important, but it is not unique. Since movement and passing time is a universal experience, so too is being occasionally adrift and unsure of direction.

There is nothing inherently apologetic about drifting, and there is nothing that says it’s wrong to be driven by something not of your own design. I can’t always name the forces that are driving me, and I can’t always sense my direction. But when I drift, when I live in that tension between stillness and movement, I remember that after everything else, drifting means that I’m still going.

Photo Credit: Hartwig HKD via Flickr