Thursday, November 10, 2005

Carnival of the Etymologies

[A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"]

A thoughtful quote turned up recently on Dean's World.

The functional difference between a belief and a conviction is that even the most rabidly held conviction can be shaken if not shattered by even one or two pieces of data. A belief, for all intents and purposes, is perfectly fortified.

Not that he doesn't have a lot of thoughtful quotes there, but this one stuck with me.

Obviously, there's a truth in it. That is, it sets up two ideas and draws a line between them. Every person except a pure philosopher accepts certain things as true, even though proof is lacking or the evidence is conflicting. But for some people, certain things accepted as true are psychologically insulated against proof. So that, even as evidence might pile up against them, they perversely stand. The person who believes them has chosen to do so whether there is proof or not.

The distinction is important, and it's central to a great deal of what makes tragedies and headlines in the world today.

But I wondered about the choice of words -- belief and conviction -- used to distinguish them. Were those the right terms? Is a "belief" a sort of supernatural "conviction?" Is there a better set of words? That's not easy to answer, because to do so you have to dive down into a slurry of words, legal, sacred, and profane, that never really had distinct meanings. Writers have at times tried to disentangle them, but they have a tendency to flow into one another that confounds logic.

How is belief different from, say, faith? Webster's (New World, 3rd ed.) has a useful primer. Belief "implies mental acceptance of something as true, even though absolute certainty may be absent." Faith "implies complete, unquestioning acceptance of something even in the absence of proof and, esp., of something not supported by reason."

Most people can separate those from trust, which "implies assurance, often apparently intuitive, in the reliability of someone or something." But the Webster's definition makes it seem like "belief" is the weaker form of "faith," which is absolute. Wordsworth must have felt the same, when in "The Excursion" (1814) he wrote of:

"One in whom persuasion and belief
Had ripened into faith."

The historical relationship between belief and faith is even more complex. Belief originally meant, in English, the more potent kind of acceptance-without-proof that we associate with theology -- what we now would call faith.

Belief is a native English word; faith was borrowed from French. But at the same time English was borrowing words from French, to use in legal and social situations, it was borrowing the Latin form of the same words in religious contexts. And Latin and French were close enough to one another, in medieval times, that the identity of the words would be "felt" by the learned Anglo-Saxons who adopted both of them. Perhaps they felt it more strongly than the native speakers of French (people who learn a language often get insights into it overlooked by those who absorb it from birth).

At any rate, the meaning of faith shifted in Middle English, and it was such an important word that it squeezed belief into a smaller space. When faith came into English c.1250, it meant "duty of fulfilling one's trust; loyalty to a person to whom one is bound by promise or duty or to one's promise or duty itself."

That was its sense in Old French, from which English got it. It was a feudal concept, primarily, and it survives in phrases like to keep faith and to break faith and in the derivative words faithful and faithless, which have nothing to do with divinity. In other words, the old, original sense of faith was what we now might call fidelity or fealty.

But the word faith once established in English, began to be used early in the 14th century as the etymologically correct translation of Latin fides, a crucial theological word. As a result, belief was crowded out of theological language, leaving belief, by the 16th century, confined mostly to the "merely intellectual process or state" of "mental acceptance of a proposition, statement, or fact, as true, on the ground of authority or evidence." [Oxford English Dictionary]. Belief in God no longer means the same as faith in God. Hence Wordsworth's distinction.

English wasn't the first language to mix these ideas. In Latin itself, the verb fidere "to trust" was not used for "to believe," but fides "faith, belief" served as a noun for credere. Credere was the Latin form of the inherited Indo-European group of words that, as far as anyone can tell, was the original term in this language group for "to believe." It is common to Latin, Celtic (Old Irish cretim, Irish creidim, Welsh credu), and Indo-Iranian (Vedic crad-, Avestan zrazda-). English creed was borrowed from Latin credo "I believe."

Belief in the sense of "the thing believed, the proposition held true (originally as a amtter of religious doctrine)," has been present in English since about 1225, and religious systems still are called beliefs, but in modern use it generally refers merely to opinions and persuasions.

What of the other term, conviction? It is the right word as used in the quote above. Webster defines it as "State or appearance of being convicted, as of the truth of a belief," and also as "a strong belief." OED says, "An opinion or belief held as well proved or established; a firm or settled persuasion."

Like faith, however, conviction has left a braided stream in the history of English, because it flowed in through the different channels of high and low Latin, legal and common speech, from the same fountainhead.

Convict and convince are the same word, or, more accurately, different tense-forms of the same Latin word -- convincere (whose past participle is convictus) -- and at first both were used in all senses now divided between them, as well as some others now lost. But they soon sorted themselves out, as words are wont to do.

Convict came into the language by a more legal path than convince, and so the current restriction of meanings that keeps them from flowing together in confusion is a reflection of their histories in English.

The verb convict "to prove a person guilty of an offense which makes him liable to legal punishment" turns up in English first about 1380, in the works of the theologian John Wyclif:

"God techiþ ... þat o trewe man, as danyel dede, schal conuycte two false prestis."

But the same word was used in the same generation by Wyclif and Chaucer also in a non-legal sense of "prove guilty of error or bad conduct." And a sense of "establish by proof, overcoming objections or contrary claims" (the sense now in convince) is attested from c.1400 through the mid-17th century.

Latin convincere meant generally "to overcome decisively." But it also had more precise sense of "to overcome in argument," which led to the main modern sense of English convict. The connection with the criminal sense is from the notion of "prove (guilty)."

Convince was used in a literal sense of "to overcome, conquer, vanquish" in the 16th and 17th centuries. The modern sense is an offshoot of this, via the secondary Latin sense of "to overcome in argument," which is attested in English from c.1530. This stretched to "to cause (someone) to admit that which is asserted in argument" by 1632. The meaning "to prove a person guilty of wrong" was in use from 1535, but by the late 18th century this had gone off with convict.

Conviction, despite its formal resemblance to convict, really belongs to convince. Its meaning in English evolved from "mental state of being convinced" (1699) to "thing one is convinced about; opinion firmly held" (1841). The transition perhaps was aided by theological uses, via phrases such as under conviction "being in a state of awakened consciousness of sin." [Conviction in a sense of "act of convincing" was rare in English; most examples date from the 17th century.]

The Old English verb for this was oferstælan, so if there was a native word for "conviction," to pair with belief, it would be *overstalling. Which is not a bad word at all.

Latin convincere is a compound of com-, used here as an intensive prefix, and vincere "to conquer." The Proto-Indo-European base of this is *weik- "to fight, conquer." Its relatives outside Latin include Lithuanian apveikiu "to subdue, overcome," Old Church Slavonic veku "strength, power, age," Old Norse vigr "able in battle," Old English wigan "fight," Welsh gwych "brave, energetic," Old Irish fichim "I fight," and the second element in the Celtic tribal name Ordovices, which literally means "those who fight with hammers."

Etymologically, belief is a common West Germanic abstract noun, but its original, correct form is represented by Old English geleafa. Its relatives across the Germanic language tapestry include Old Saxon gilobo, Middle Dutch gelove, Old High German giloubo, and the Modern German verb glauben.

The ga-, a standard Germanic noun prefix of intensity, was reduced according to the usual evolution in English, and the word emerged as ileve or leve, both of which turn up in early Middle English texts.

But the unnatural form belief (be- is not a noun prefix) rose up in the 12th century and established itself, probably by an analogy from the verb believe, where the be- belongs.

The Proto-Germanic root behind this group of words is *galaub-, which meant "dear, esteemed," and derives (with a prefix) from the Proto-Indo-European base *leubh- "to care, desire, love," itself the source of love and leave "permission" (originally, probably, "approval resulting from pleasure"). The sense evolution that led to the Germanic group that includes believe probably came via "to hold estimable, valuable, pleasing, or satisfactory; to be satisfied with."

Another descendant of this group is lief "willing" (from Old English leof "dear"); a most useful word, now, alas, all but extinct. Want and love are overworked and misused to fill the hole left in the language when this word faded in the 17th century. It survives somewhat in the phrase livelong day, which, though the first element was mistaken for live (v.) and deformed, was originally (c.1400) lefe longe (day), from lief "dear," used here as an emotional intensive.

In the quote at the head of this article, I might have used faith in place of belief.

Faith has "fidelity" at its root. Conviction has "victory." But belief has "love." You hold a faith because you have committed yourself to it; a conviction has won you over. But you believe in what you love, be it a child or a country or a cause. So, too, love is belief. And it is not adamant as faith -- it can be deceived and revealed, it can be broken. But, as in one of my favorite stories, something always endures:

In "The Dove's Neck Ring," written early in the 11th century by our reckoning, the great Spanish-Arabic philosopher-poet Ibn Hazm tells of many kinds of love in thirty chapters. In one of them, he writes of the poet Al-Ramadi, who was passing by the Gate of the Perfumers in Cordova one day when he saw a young slave girl and she took possession of his heart. He followed her across a bridge and into a cemetery called Al-Rabad. Then she noticed him, who had left the crowd, and she turned and asked him, "Why are you walking behind me?"

He told her of his great sudden passion. She told him forget it, cast it away, there is no use in hoping for fulfillment. But he asked her name, and she told him: Halwa, that is, "Solitude." And when he asked where he would see her again, she said she would return to the Gate of the Perfumers, which was a gathering-place for women, at the same hour on Friday. Then they parted.

"By God," Al-Ramadi wrote, "I went assiduously to the Perfumers' Gate and Al-Rabad from that time on, but never heard another thing about her. And I do not know whether the heavens consumed her or the earth swallowed her up, but truly there is in my heart, because of her, a burning fiercer than a glowing ember." And she was the Halwa to whom he addressed his love poems.

And those poems crossed the Pyrenees into Aquitaine, and there taught the troubadours to sing of amor de lonh -- "love in separation, far-away love, love-longing." Before that, all in northern Europe had been warrior-verse, the dear love of comrades in arms. Now we have what we call "Western literature," via Yeats and Eliot and Billie Holliday, via Dante, via Bernart de Ventadorn, via Al-Ramadi, from Arab slave girl Halwa by the Perfumers' Gate. Otherwise, we'd all still be singing "Beowulf."