The Meaning of the Word ‘Problem’

by Jan Yuill

I did not know that the origins of the word ‘problem’ are from the Greek words ‘problēma’ (literally meaning, ‘obstacle’) and ‘proballein’ (literally meaning ‘to throw forward’ – i.e. ‘pro’ meaning ‘forward’ and ‘ballein’ meaning ‘to throw’).*

The Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary goes on to define ‘problem’ as:

1 a : a question raised for inquiry, consideration, or solution
   b : a proposition in mathematics or physics stating something to be done

2 a : an intricate unsettled question
    b : a source of perplexity, distress, or vexation
    c : difficulty in understanding or accepting

Problems throw us forward? I like that. It suggests motion. The future. Hope.

And problems raise questions that move us forward? I like that too.

In the past several years, the word ‘problem’ has taken a bad rap. With the messages of The Secret, Appreciative Inquiry, and Law of Attraction, I have heard people corrected and strongly encouraged to use a different word … as if by ‘not saying the word’ an obstacle will go away. I know that this is not actually the underlying messages of these works and people. If anything, I think they encourage a reframing of problems into opportunities and challenges … and I’m all for that.

But the word ‘problem’ … well, I’d like to bring it back as a legitimate and useful word in our vocabulary. Restore it to its rightful place in the arsenal of human experience. Things do break. People do disagree. Budgets get cut. The earth does move. There are obstacles to overcome! Large and small. Day-in a day-out. And we need to ask ourselves questions that carry us forward and beyond.

Mark Victor Hansen and Robert G. Allen, in their 2009 book – Cash in a Flash – say that we can “begin to see the wisdom in problems and the opportunities in disasters.”