Thursday, January 26, 2006

Carnival of the Etymologies

A regular Thursday feature of "Done With Mirrors"

I've been reading some fascinating excerpts from Pope Benedict XVI's first encyclical. His topic is love:

"Today, the term 'love' has become one of the most frequently used and misused of words. ... We speak of love of country, love of one's profession, love between friends, love of work, love between parents and children, love of neighbor and love of God. Amid this multiplicity of meanings, however, one in particular stands out: love between man and woman, where body and soul are inseparably joined and human beings glimpse an apparently irresistible promise of happiness."

According to the BBC, Deus Caritas Est was written by the Pope in his native German, then translated into Latin, and is to be published in Latin and six other key languages. The BBC adds, "the publication is thought to have been delayed by translation problems."

Not surprising! The encyclical explores the topic from a Church perspective that is rooted in Greek language -- the original language of the New Testament -- where there are four distinct words for "love." Few modern languages have such a collection of words, and none of them breaks down "love" quite the way the Greeks did. Yet this is the central theme of the Pope's document.

English love, for instance, can refer to everything from the most exalted feeling of friend for friend, or to a woman's attachment to her cat. It can mean the spiritual relationship between a nun and Christ, or a couple of teenagers down in the basement rec room on a Friday night.

The word is Old English lufu, which had a similar wide application -- "love, affection, friendliness." It had some relatives in adjectives in older Germanic languages (Old Frisian liaf, German lieb, Gothic liufs "dear, beloved"), but it is not found elsewhere as a noun, except in Old High German luba and German Liebe.

The Proto-Indo-European root is *leubh- "to care, desire, love," source of Latin lubet (later libet) "pleases," Sanskrit lubhyati "desires," Old Church Slavonic l'ubu "dear, beloved," and Lithuanian liaupse "song of praise."

Ancient Greek, however, distinguished four different kinds of love: eran "to feel sexual love," phileo "have affection for," agapao "have regard for, be contented with," and stergo, which was used especially of the love of parents and children or a ruler and his subjects.

The Pope focused on two of these, eros and agape (in the noun forms), which have a history in Church dogma, and which in modern use have come to be used for "carnal or sensual love" and "Christian love of one's fellow man."

"Nowadays, Christianity of the past is often criticized as having been opposed to the body; and it is quite true that tendencies of this sort have always existed. Yet the contemporary way of exalting the body is deceptive. Eros, reduced to pure 'sex,' has become a commodity, a mere 'thing' to be bought and sold, or rather, man himself becomes a commodity."

Eros also was the Greek god of love and carnal desire, and of course the word is the root of erotic. The word is of unknown origin. Agape is related to the verb agapan "greet with affection, love," which was used by early Christians for their "love feast" held in connection with the Lord's Supper. It, too, is of unknown origin.

In the Latin title, however, the Pope uses caritas, which in the Vulgate often is used as the translation of Greek agape. There was another Latin "love" word -- amor -- but it had a strong flavor of sexuality about it, and would have worked better as the equivalent of eros. The Vulgate also sometimes translated agape with Latin dilectio, a noun of action from diligere "to esteem highly, to love."

Latin caritas might be translated into Modern English as "costliness, esteem, affection." But it has come down into our language directly, on its own, via its accusative form caritatem, as charity (the initial "ch-" sound was acquired in Old French). Benevolence for the poor, was one of the expressions of agape, and the word now has this derivative sense in English.

The root of Latin carus "dear, valued" is Proto-Indo-European *karo-, a base that has produced words in other languages for "love" or "lover" in a much more erotic sense. In Sanskrit, for instance, it became Kama, the name of the Hindu god of love, and kamah "love, desire," the first element in Kama Sutra. In Germanic, the root became a noun *khoraz (feminine *khoron-), and yielded words for "prostitute," such as whore and Dutch hoer. In Gothic, the word is found only in the masculine, hors "adulterer, fornicator," and as a verb, horinon "to commit adultery."

According to the "Oxford English Dictionary:"

Wyclif and the Rhemish version regularly rendered the Vulgate dilectio by 'love,' caritas by 'charity.' But the 16th c. Eng. versions from Tindale to 1611, while rendering agape sometimes 'love,' sometimes 'charity,' did not follow the dilectio and caritas of the Vulgate, but used 'love' more often (about 86 times), confining 'charity' to 26 passages in the Pauline and certain of the Catholic Epistles (not in I John), and the Apocalypse .... In the Revised Version 1881, 'love' has been substituted in all these instances, so that it now stands as the uniform rendering of agape."

No wonder the Papal translators had fits.

The Pope does go on to address charity as a higher extension of eros-agape:

"...Love for widows and orphans, prisoners, and the sick and needy of every kind, is as essential to her (the church) as ministry of the sacraments and preaching of the Gospel. ... For the church, charity is not a kind of welfare activity which could equally be left to others, but is a part of her nature, an indispensable expression of her very being."

These are not hard words to translate, but they are interesting ones.

Widow is Anglo-Saxon widewe, widuwe, from a common Proto-Indo-European word for "widow" (cf. German Witwe, Gothic widuwo, Sanskrit vidhava, Avestan vithava, Latin vidua, Old Church Slavonic vidova, Russian vdova, Old Irish fedb, Welsh guedeu).

The reconstructed source of it is an adjective, *widhewo, from a base *weidh- "to separate," which also is at the root of Sanskrit vidhuh "lonely, solitary," Persian beva, Greek eitheos "unmarried man;" Latin viduus "bereft, void," and the second element in di-videre "to divide." In English, it is related to with (which originally meant "against, opposite, toward," literally "more apart," but the sense shifted in Middle English to denote association, combination, and union).

Orphan is a word borrowed from Late Latin orphanus "parentless child," itself borrowed from Greek orphanos "orphaned," literally "deprived," from orphos "bereft."

Linguists have connected this to a root *orbho- that must have meant "bereft of father" and also "deprived of free status." It's one of those flashes of anthropological insight that the history of a language can suggest. The base would be *orbh- "to change allegiance, to pass from one status to another." Among the words used to reconstruct this are Hittite harb- "change allegiance," Latin orbus "bereft," Sanskrit arbhah "weak, child," Armenian orb "orphan," Old Irish orbe "heir," Old Church Slavonic rabu "slave," rabota "servitude" (source of robot), Gothic arbja, German erbe, Old English ierfa "heir," Old High German arabeit, German Arbeit "work," and Old English earfoð "hardship, suffering, trouble."

The Pope also invoked a social system that was central to the career of his predecessor:

"Marxism had seen world revolution and its preliminaries as the panacea for the social problem. ... This illusion has vanished. In today's complex situation, not least because of the growth of a globalized economy, the church's social doctrine has become a set of fundamental guidelines offering approaches that are valid even beyond the confines of the church."

Panacea entered English in the early 16th century. It came from Latin, where it referred to an herb (variously identified) that supposedly could cure any malady. The Romans took it from Greek panakeia, which literally means "cure-all" and is a compound of pan- "all" and akos "cure," from iasthai "to heal," a word of unknown origin which however forms the second element in geriatrics, pediatrics, etc. A native translation of the Latin word was created in English as heal-all.