Monday, May 27, 2013

Etymology for an Ailing World is the study of word origins. Over time, words often change their meaning. Sometimes this is a result of natural usage in a changing world, as in the case of the word “goodbye”, which started out as “God Be With You” (or “with Ye”). As the farewell utterance retained its usefulness even among people who grew less religious, the four original words lost their utility. In other cases, as highlighted by George Orwell in his book 1984, authorities manipulate words in order to place new meanings on ancient and valuable texts, common sayings, or other influential bits of language.

Deception is an instinctive tool creatures from bugs to humans use to improve the prospects of continuing their species. Most deception in nature happens between species, for example when a predator or prey accomplishes its goal by providing bad signals to its enemy. Camouflage is one good example. Human beings, however, often use deception on other members of our own species. Though this strategy tends to wane with age, wisdom, and maturity in most, there are certain kinds of people who employ the strategy of deception at an increasing rate as they get older and take on more responsibilities. This is because there is a sharp contrast between the group they favor privately and the group they favor publicly. Etymology is a useful tool for detecting and remedying the damage caused by such deception.

For those who occupy positions of influence, there is always the temptation to get people to believe things that aren’t true, or to look at things in a warped way. For example, when George W. Bush and his administration were pondering how best to protect the usefulness of the national currency against growing interest in using some other medium of exchange to trade oil, they concocted the story of “Weapons of Mass Destruction” to justify an attack on Iraq. It also seems likely that the destruction of the Word Trade Center Towers in 2001 was part of a “false flag” operation designed to justify the attack. There are many examples of such “false flag operations” throughout history. While the majority of the world’s population suffers from the outcomes of these deceptions, any exploration of crony capitalism, fascism, communism, or other government structures will show that they provide great benefits to those who are in power and to their friends and business associates.

Often, it isn’t clear whether a word’s changing meaning over time results from the intentions of authorities or from its natural course of usage among people. Indeed, such shifts in meaning are most often a result of the combination of these two factors. The very word “authority” is a great example. It starts with the telling word, “author”. These first six characters suggest that someone is creating a story, perhaps based on truth, or perhaps a complete fabrication; perhaps intentionally deceptive, or perhaps fiction intended for entertainment. In all cases, the audience of such an author chooses whether or not to pay attention to the story, and how much of it to believe.

In order for an author to become an authority, the audience must find value in the story, feel a growing respect for the wisdom of the author, and ultimately rely on the author for information, knowledge, and wisdom in some specific domain. I am tempted to call this “respect-based authority”, but this is misleading. Authority is always and necessarily respect-based, and the “authorities” know this and struggle with it. Examine the material provided to schoolchildren about “the authorities”. Rather than presenting the claims and writings of these power players so that the students can come to their own conclusions, the material starts with the conclusions desired by the authorities. History textbooks, the novels students read for English class, and even math textbooks are filled with examples insinuating and insisting that “the authorities” are wise and should be respected. Really, however, they are tyrants.

In “The Social Contract”, Rousseau writes “In the exact sense, a tyrant is an individual who arrogates to himself the royal authority without having a right to it. This is how the Greeks understood the word ‘tyrant’: they applied it indifferently to good and bad princes whose authority was not legitimate.” It is unclear from the English translation I have how he means the word “legitimate”. Etymologically, “legitimate” comes from the Latin word for writing, but more specifically, the writing of law. This leads down a wonderful path our readers can explore on their own, along which they will meet Hammurabi, often cited as the first guy who wrote down the rules he would be enforcing. The modern meaning of “legitimate” does not require an author, but assumes that the real world is the measuring stick for legitimacy. For example, a “legitimate” argument cannot contain a logical error because such an error delegitimizes the argument. No author can legislate logic out of existence. A tyrant can, however, and that is the point here.

Authorities are valuable people who earn respect by knowing their subjects and providing help and advice to those who rely on them for the knowledge they hold. Tyrants the world over crave such respect and do everything in their power to enjoy its benefits. The essence of their tyranny, however, is not any written law or lack thereof, but the lack of the more modern kind of legitimacy: reasonable justification. When reason paints the tyrant as a tyrant, his true nature emerges through his reliance on coercion and violence. In his “Essay on the Trial By Jury”, Lysander Spooner points out (and extensively defends) the fact that it is jurors’ “primary and paramount duty, to judge of the justice of the law, and to hold all laws invalid, that are, in their opinion, unjust or oppressive, and all persons guiltless in violating, or resisting the execution of, such laws.”

Another example of etymology that is highly germane (at least in the United States of America) in the area of applying etymology to the ailments of the world is the word “income”. Peter E. Hendrickson has written a wonderful website page explaining how this term has been abused outside of the law, while its meaning inside the law (from 1916) retains all manner of usefulness for those citizens of the USA who wish to understand the US Internal Revenue Code and avoid paying unnecessary taxes. His essay explains that the word at that time described passive income, and that it is now unofficially abused by tyrants (whom most would call “authorities”) to deceptively maximize tax revenue. His essay is available at
With this in mind, this author urges you to help other people understand the difference between authority and tyranny, and to point out that an authority that relies on its brute force is not an authority, but rather a tyrant, incapable of relying exclusively on reason, as all genuine authorities must. To put it in a simpler light, if you are “writing your own story” and someone threatens you into changing it (perhaps with a “You may not grow/sell/transport that kind of plant/milk/chemical/monetary instrument/light bulb” or other such law), recognize that you are being controlled not by authority, but by tyranny, and complain loudly. This world needs a lot more voices complaining of the tyrannies under which it suffers.

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