What's in A Word?

By Mick Mouse · Mar 15, 2014 ·
  1. Mick Mouse
    Words evolve, perhaps more rapidly and tellingly than do their users, and the changes in meaning reflects a society often more accurately than do the works of many historians. I propose that the change in meaning of one word can predict the failure of society more immediately and accurately than all of the analysts, social scientists, and historians. That critical word?


    We know it now as a term meaning "unfounded bias against a person, group, or culture on the basis of racial, gender, or ethnic background." Prejudice, if you will.

    However, the previous meaning of the word was "to draw a clear distinction between good and evil, to differentiate, to recognize as different." In addition, the connotations once associated with discrimination were favorable. A person of discrimination was one of taste and good judgment. With the change in meaning into a negative term of bias, the English language was left without a single-word term for the act of choosing between alternatives wisely, and more importantly, left with a "subterranean" negative connotation for those who attempted to make such choices.

    In hindsight, the change in meaning clearly reflected and foreshadowed the disaster to come. Individuals and institutions abhorred making real choices. At some point, and with much of the youthful population entering institutions of "higher learning", credentials, often paper ones, replaced meaningful judgment and choices. Popularity replaced excellence. This list of disastrous cultural and political decisions foreshadowed by the change in meaning of one word is truly endless.

    Was this merely an aberration of history? Hardly, for the same changes in language today can reflect our own future. Take the word "filch", for example. The original meaning was "to steal slyly in small amounts, to pilfer." I propose a different meaning, based on our current society. Lets apply it to the wealthiest of the wealthy, or the "filthy rich". The contraction, as well as the theft "overtones", fit admirably the social needs of the time.

    The application of this term to those who are much more than moderately successful could clearly reflect the widespread social unrest and dissatisfaction with those who control the wealth and power of our present-day society.

    Warren Buffett-filch. Bill Gates-filch. The list goes on and on, as does the distance between the "haves" and the "have-nots". When the 1% has more combined wealth than the remaining 99%-filch.

    But would this term be negative or derogatory? No, not necessarily. Buffet, Gates, and many of the other filch have promised to give the bulk of their wealth away, which is a good thing. The problem, in my eyes, is the manner in which they obtained that wealth. Nice guys are not filch, and great riches come from the broken backs of the less fortunate.

    But lets look at another word.....beauty. The ancient Romans understood the danger beauty posed. The word "beauty" comes from the Old French"beaute", which in turn derived from the Latin word "bellus", which means handsome, fine, or pretty. Yet, the Latin word for "war" is "bellum"-a difference of one letter, and at the end of the word, indistinguishable from the neuter form of the adjective, also "bellum". The Roman Goddess of War was named Bellona.

    The Romans believed that war had beauty, perhaps a terrible beauty, but a beauty all the same. Why else did Caesar write so movingly about war? And why would the Romans make dying in the service of Mars a far more honorable and glorious death than did the earlier Greeks, from whom they stole so much?

    Interestingly enough, while Venus was the Roman Goddess of Love and Beauty, some studies indicate that she evolved from a comparatively weak and generally benign Goddess in the Greek Iliad to a Goddess of both compelling beauty as well as treachery in the later Greek and Roman poems.

    Even the term "belladonna" is Italian for "beautiful lady", but it also refers to a herb from which poison (atropine) was extracted. Throughout human history, beauty has been and continues to be regarded with great suspicion. Those who would define it are often called to task, and their efforts dismissed with the old cliche' that"beauty is in the eye of the beholder."

    And yet, individuals have attempted to describe and define Deity. Cultures have striven to create art of great beauty, whether in hard and tangible stone or in the intangible and fleeting creations of music and song. Beauty is accepted as an attribute of creations or of individuals, but never as an absolute. Religions and cultures have attempted to define other, so-called abstracts in hard terms.....abstracts such as justice, mercy, or compassion. Yet, any serious scholar who attempts to define beauty in the same terms runs the risk of ridicule or ostracism.

    Why do people so fear the idea of beauty that stands by itself, unlinked from creations or individuals? Is it because so few appreciate it? Or understand it? Or could it be because beauty is transcendent, and those who can define it within themselves have climbed an intangible step above the masses who, like the ancient Romans, find their beauty in destruction?

    Is a word-any word-a weapon, or a tool? Is/should/can they be used to destroy, or to build, to create? Razed, or beautified?

    Think about your words, and the paradoxes contained within them.

    Think about your words.

    Think. And then walk in beauty.

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