Q&A: Why do we say “second nature”?

Each week here at the Australian Writers’ Centre, we dissect and discuss, contort and retort, ask and gasp at the English language and all its rules, regulations and ridiculousness. It’s a celebration of language, masquerading as a passive-aggressive whinge about words and weirdness. This week, we're having second thoughts…

Q: Hey AWC, what’s the deal with the phrase “second nature”? 

A: Oh, you mean what Macquarie Dictionary describes as something so long practised that it is inalterably fixed in one's character”?

Q: That’s the one. 

A: An example might be: “correcting the grammar of others is second nature to him.” Or: “After practising day and night, it came as second nature to her.”

Q: Yep. So here’s my question. WHY is it not “first” nature? It feels natural after all?

A: That seems logical. But you know the rule by now.

Q: The one that says English simply doesn’t have to make sense?

A: That’s the one. 

Q: Ugh. I hate that rule.

A: In this case, the phrase “second nature” has actually been around almost as long as nature itself – first appearing in the 1300s and directly translated from the Latin secundum naturam, meaning “according to nature”.

Q: So “second” isn’t really about number two?

A: Well, kind of. But in this context, “second” as an adjective is more about “following” rather than being second-rate or the runner up. We see a similar thing in education, where primary school is followed by secondary school – not in an inferior way, but as a continuation in the order. “Secondary” in this context dates back to 1809.

Q: And “tertiary” is next in the order?

A: Yep – from Latin “tertius” for third. An example of that in education would be a university. 

Q: My uncle went to Yale.

A: Wow, that’s a very prestigious university. What does he do?

Q: Oh, no, not the university. He’s a locksmith.

A: Right, okay. So anyway, with “second nature” it was actually like saying that you were following the “first” nature in doing something that matched the original.

Q: Yeah, I guess that makes sense. But seriously, who comes up with this stuff?

A: You probably asked that rhetorically, but there is an answer. In this case, it was part of a whole system created by the philosopher Aristotle in Ancient Greece. He called them the Principles of Nature. Later on, 14th century philosophers picked up on this concept and proposed “second nature” as being part of a larger set of natural laws. 

Q: What were the other ones?

A: As well as “secundum naturam” (things that followed nature), they proposed “contra naturam” (things that went against nature), “supra naturam” (things that were beyond nature, like miracles), and “super naturam” (things that were above nature). 

Q: Wow, so that last one is where we get “supernatural” from?

A: That’s right! The word “supernatural” kind of scooped up both the super and supra vibes, with Macquarie’s definition as being above or beyond what is natural; not explicable in terms of natural laws or phenomena.”

Q: So an example might be having “second sight”?

A: Haha, okay, yes, well played. This dates back to the 1610s, and feels a bit back-to-front, in that it usually refers to the ability to “see” events before they occur, not following. 

Q: Yeah, it’s weird. So why use “second”?

A:  It’s because in this case, “second” is being used in the “alternative” or “additional” sense – like a second helping of dessert. “Second sight” is a way of seeing in addition to the physical sight with the eyes.

Q: Sounds a bit supernatural to me. 

A: Indeed.

Q: Well, I certainly learnt something today. This wordy stuff is starting to become second nature to me!

Do you have a question you’d like us to explore? Email it to us today!

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