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<   No. 2519   2009-12-19   >

Comic #2519

1 Lambert: A ghost!
1 Ghost: The dead do not suffer the living to pass.
2 Mordekai: You will suffer me!
3 {beat}
4 Ghost: Huh? What does that even mean?

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My dictionary provides:

suffer, v.i. 1. to undergo or feel pain or distress. 2. to sustain injury, disadvantage, or loss. 3. to undergo a penalty, esp. of death. 4. to be the object of some action. 5. to endure patiently or bravely. -v.t. 6. to undergo, experience, or be subjected to (pain, distress, injury, loss, or anything unpleasant). 7. to undergo (any action, process, etc.): to suffer change. 8. to tolerate or allow. 9. to allow or permit (to be or do as stated).
If you don't know how to read a dictionary, allow me to digress slightly to explain what that v.i. and v.t. mean. "Suffer" is a verb, which is what the v. stands for in each case. The i. stands for intransitive, and the t. stands for transitive.

An intransitive verb is one which doesn't need an object. My favourite example verb is intransitive: run. Using it in a sentence: "I run." I don't run something, I just run.

A transitive verb is one which needs an object. A good transitive verb is break. Using it in a sentence: "I break the computer." I can't just break, I have to break something.

Clever readers will no doubt spot that there are also transitive meanings for "run" ("I run the computer.") and, if you change the subject and tense, intransitive meanings for "break" ("The computer broke."). There aren't all that many verbs in English that are exclusively transitive or intransitive - most do double service in different contexts.

Anyway, "suffer" is one of those verbs that can go either way. The more usual version comes first in the definition. In this case, it's intransitive: "I suffer." I don't need to suffer anything specific, I can just suffer (though frankly I'd prefer not to!).

There are also some common transitive uses, in which the object is what I'm suffering. "I suffer pain."

Then there are meanings which aren't in such common use these days, like what our ghost says in the comic. "The dead do not suffer the living to pass." So... "the dead do not suffer the living"... The correct meaning here is number 9: "The dead do not allow the living to pass." So this memorable line from The Return of the King is not about suffering in the sense of suffering pain or anything like that. The ghost is merely saying that he won't let the living dudes go past.

And the response, "You will suffer me!" is now easily interpretable as meaning: "You will allow me!"

Which sort of kills my joke in the comic, but it was worth it for imparting this knowledge to anyone who wasn't aware of it.

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Last Modified: Saturday, 19 December 2009; 02:11:02 PST.
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