What Words Once Meant

anarchy by dorothee lang
photo by dorothee lang

I confess that I make a lot of use of online dictionaries and thesauruses, but not so much in the search for words and meanings as in the search for word origins. The original meaning of a word, what we initially wanted to describe, tells me much more about humans, and about the appropriateness of the words we use, than the meanings we have attached to words in the last few years or centuries to meet current needs. Too often that current need seems to be obfuscation anyway — the deliberate blurring or misrepresentation of meaning. So clever, we humans, with this powerful and dangerous tool, language. Orwell will tell you what you can do with words. “What would you like this word to mean, Mr. President?”

This article is about etymology, about what some words once meant.

Let’s start with the literal meaning of some of the words that refer to place and the people who live in those places.

  • nation = the place where you were born
  • country = a place apart (from the city, or from any other place)
  • state = the place where you stand or ‘have standing’
  • community = a place shared equally
  • village = collection of buildings
  • clan = a sprout (hence, a group of people who sprouted from a common ancestor, what we would today call an extended family)
  • family = a group of servants (!) of a household
  • band = a group of people identified by a common banner, a ‘party’
  • club = a ‘thick mass’ of people (after the thick mass at the end of a cudgel)
  • miru (Russian) = a group of people bound peacefully together
  • civilization = a group of governed people
  • barbarians = a group of ungoverned people, ‘free’ of governance, self-governed
  • savages = people of the forest, untamed
  • home = place of belonging (and to belong = depend on something greater, ‘longer’ than oneself)

Most of these words now have politically charged meanings very different from their original meanings. The terms we currently use most positively and enthusiastically are in fact terms of subjugation: civilization, family, home — governed by others, servile, dependent, that’s us.

The terms that correctly describe concepts that libertarians and anarchists love — barbarism and savagery — are now tainted with outrageously negative connotations of violence, war and cruelty, which is not what these words mean at all. When you call someone a barbarian and savage you’re actually telling them that they’re self-governed and free.

The term community comes, of course, from the same root as communism, and its original meaning has consequently been watered down to take away the scary connotation of equal sharing. The idea of equal sharing has never been popular in the individualistic West. The concept is now muddled (some would say deliberately confused) in our political rhetoric with ‘state-owned’, thanks to the bungling and idealistic despots who misruled pseudo-communist regimes.

The original ideals of both communism and democracy have never been achievable because neither concept is scalable beyond the community level. Large-scale communism abandons ‘owned by the people’ in favour of ‘owned by the state as representative of the people’. Large-scale democracy abandons ‘governed by the people’ in favour of ‘governed by representatives of the people’. We all know how ‘representative’ and ‘responsible’ both states and elected representatives really are. But rather than conceding that these systems are dysfunctional on any large scale, those in charge of these self-serving centralized organizations simply changed the meaning of words of place and people and governance, from their original meanings to ones that suited their purpose.

Nevertheless, the idea of community endures because it is the natural way of all creatures to live — everything is shared equally, and no one ‘owns’ anything, at least beyond the burrow and the winter’s cache, which are both temporary ‘accommodations’. And the idea of home endures as well, once we realize that we have twisted its meaning from ‘the place to which we belong’ to ‘the place that belongs to us’. We all want and need to belong — to be a part of something greater than ourselves. And of course we are — we are part of Gaia, the self-managing collective meta-community comprising all life on Earth. The surrogates we have, in our disconnectedness and fear of nature, substituted for Gaia in our search to belong — nations, states, families, clubs — are arbitrary, artificial and suppressive human constructs. It is no wonder we are so torn and dissatisfied with them.

No terms have been so skewed from their original meaning as terms of governance. Here are the root meanings of some of these words:

  • hierarchy = rule by the priesthood, those ordained to power
  • plutocracy = rule by the wealthy
  • aristocracy and meritocracy = rule by the best, the chosen (by others so chosen)
  • autocracy = rule by one person
  • oligarchy = rule by the few
  • oligopoly and oligopsony = a market restricted to only a few sellers (e.g. the Big 4), or only a few buyers (e.g. Wal-Mart), and hence distorted
  • freedom = doing without, not having the need for
  • anarchy = rule by no one

The first six governance concepts above are inherently un-democratic and un-egalitarian. They essentially assume that, in most things, at least once groups reach a certain scale, self-management becomes impossible, so some small group needs to be given power over everyone ‘below’. This is how most organizations, including so-called democratic governments and nearly all corporations operate. Indeed, the concept of anarchy has been distorted from its true meaning (“ruled by no one”) to a conveniently deprecatory one (“lawless and disordered”).

Most anarchies are, in fact, lawless and disordered, but are never given the chance to self-organize and self-manage. The assumption is that anarchy is a state of perpetual entropy and that law and order needs to be imposed by some elite (= small group chosen by God) which knows better how to organize and rule and keep order in a mob (= mobile, ‘unsettled’ group). Self-organized groups naturally (if you study most other animals, and look at self-organization within our bodies) choose non-hierarchical social structures (communities, clans, bands). They entail specialization but not rank — ‘pecking orders’ are mechanisms to determine community roles and to facilitate orderly turn-taking in the collective interest, they are not hierarchical. The essence of complexity theory is that order emerges naturally out of disorder. Attempts to impose order, in the absence of an understanding of complexity, are, as we have seen throughout our civilization, doomed to fail. Anarchy does not mean disordered and unorganized, and anarchy (rule by no one) accompanied by collective self-organization and self-management is, and always has been, the natural order of life on Earth (and, for that matter, of some non-living systems as well).

Organism is another interesting word that means instrument, way of doing things, and an organization is hence an instrument for doing something a particular way. Organization does not mean order or structure. When we say “let’s get organized” we are not saying let’s decide how to structure ourselves, we’re saying let’s make ourselves an instrument to do something specific. The fact that the first step in so many new organizations is establishing a hierarchy shows how well we’ve been brainwashed to believe that ‘anarchic’ self-management is impossible, when it is the natural order. This is perhaps why Open Space is so subversive and unaccepted in the political and corporate mainstream — if frees people from the false belief that they need someone else to impose order and structure on them in order to be an effective organism, an instrument of action.

Like democracy, freedom is a horrifically misused word, especially by the current crop of politicians. Freedom simply means absence, without need, so the word, without an explanation of from what, essentially means nothing. Of course it is a code word for what its over-users won’t explicitly say: That to them, freedom means freedom from all systems and ideas inconsistent with their ideology and values, whether they be The American Way and The American Dream, or The Way of Radical Islam or the Suppression of Individual Thought. We like to use the term ‘freedom of‘ as a disguised version of just ‘freedom’, because it avoids the need to state explicitly the inherent ideology of what this is freedom from. So terms like ‘freedom of speech’ or ‘freedom of religion’ can be bent to mean implicitly whatever the prevailing ideology of the day wants them to mean. As long as we have -archies and -cracies and -polies and -psonies other than anarchy, we are never free. We are subject to the rule, laws and order imposed by others. That’s not an ideological statement, simply an explication of what these much misused words really mean.

Here are some more intriguing word origins and initial meanings, for some terms that are currently popular (and less politically-charged than the previous sets):

  • sustainable = able to be held down from below
  • complex = intertwined
  • intentional = stretching towards (the word attention means the same, except in a more passive sense)
  • enterprise = an undertaking, a commitment to start and be responsible for something
  • knowledge = cunning, ability to do something well
  • information = something made into something else, that has had form put around it
  • wisdom = ability to see, vision
  • smart = stinging, cutting
  • sense = finding one’s way
  • instinct = an internal stinging that goads one to act or react
  • emotion = something that moves or carries you

Interesting that we’ve chosen the word sustainable, with its implication that the work needs to be done from below, at the grassroots level, rather than maintainable (= able to be held in the hand). Did we instinctively know that we could never trust those in power to avoid excess, that we would have to hold them back from below?

And I love the fact that an intentional community is not a planned one but rather one sharing a destination and the improvisational journey towards it. And the fact that ‘responsible enterprise’ is a tautology is delightful.

Throughout my role as CKO I always stressed that knowledge was about doing things that could not be done without it, while information was about adding meaning to raw data. Both are processes, not stuff. I always avoided using the term wisdom to represent a kind of uber-knowledge because I thought the term wisdom pretentious, but in fact it actually has, as Lao Tse said, nothing to do with knowledge or information at all. And the idea that things sensuous and sensual and ‘making sense‘ are all in a way one and the same and about movement forward and learning and discovery (and not merely about passive reaction) iswonderful.

Makes sense to me, anyway.

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7 Responses to What Words Once Meant

  1. etbnc says:

    Good stuff, Dave. I like the idea of wisdom as an ability to see…

  2. Paul Hunt says:

    I love the wisdom within language.Thanks for the insight.

  3. Just to say I really like your blog. You nailed down a lot of the stuff we need to “save the world”. At first I thought such a blog title was a bit outhere but the more I read you the more I appreciate what tou do.

  4. Jacob Wallström says:

    The word barbarian originally meant (in greek) “speaker of an incomprehensible language”. (“barbar” being an imitation of the sound that they made). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Barbarian

  5. Etymology is a double-edged sword in a world of dichotomies.

  6. judith says:

    i am humbled and appreciative of your “wisdom” and “knowledge.”

  7. Martin-Eric says:

    As someone else commented above, <cite>Etymology is a double-edged sword in a world of dichotomies</cite>. Interesting and quite accurate observation and powerful people fully understand this one. It’s therefore not a coincidence that one of the first skills they acquire is the ability to create dichotomy everywhere around them, starting with the mastery of empty double-talk.The other field they endeavour into tends to be History. Why? It has been said that those who fail to understand History tend to repeat it. It also works well the other way around: those who do understand it well benefit the most from knowing the sure steps to repeated success, starting with knowing exactly how crowds have previously been successfully manipulated into playing the Establishment’s game.

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