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Q&A

How can a problem or puzzle be analogized as a knot?

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An ESL student was asking about the quotation below at my school, but I don't know how to expound or simplify to her that "A problem or puzzle can be thought of as a knot." Any ideas? She knows what a knot is, but somehow she can't connect the dots between a knot and a problem.

The Latin roots solv and its variant solut both mean “loosen.” Let’s absolutely resolve these roots right now in a resolute fashion!

Let’s begin with the root solv, which means “loosen.” A problem or puzzle can be thought of as a knot. When you solve a problem, you “loosen” or untie that knot. When you show resolve in doing so, you are determined to “loosen” that knot no matter what. Once you resolve or set the task to “loosen” the puzzle, you can absolve or “loosen” yourself from this responsibility by using willpower to complete it.

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The metaphor should be very accessible for a fluent speaker of Russian, therefore I suspect that the misunderstanding possibly involved some additional words that also occur in the quote.

In Russian, "to solve a problem" is "решить проблему". ("решить" is the verb.)

With a suitable prefix, we get "отрешить" which means "untie" or "detach". The prefix "от-" has two semantic effects:

  1. it makes the meaning perfective (i.e., "to detach"); however, if you want to keep it imperfective which keeping the prefix, you can use a closely related "отрешать" (i.e., "to be in the process of untying").
  2. it modifies the meaning as if you added "away from" in English.

The relationship between "решить" and "отрешить" is as obvious as one can be. It is the simplest verb to verb derivation process in Russian and it is still productive across the board. This should therefore be enough connect a "problem" to a "knot".

However, let me add that the verb "решить" also means "to decide". Furthermore, the etymologically unrelated but semantically perhaps close "[от]резать" means "cut [away]". Therefore, if a knot represents a problem, solving it could, for a Russian speaker, sometimes entail complicated untying, another time cutting it abruptly like a Gordian Knot. So "решить" doesn't necessarily imply any slowness or complexity, but rather just getting rid of the problem.

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