Archive for Greek

Words, Words, Words

Posted in Favorite Words with tags , , on July, 2010 by melendwyr

Another frequently-misunderstood word: Anarchy.

It’s come to mean disorder and chaos:

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.

— William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” [Emphasis mine.]

And anarchists are supposed to be those who seek to overthrow all order and structure.

But the word comes from the Greek: an- is a prefix meaning ‘without’, and archon a word meaning ‘ruler’, ‘lord’, or ‘law-giver’; it was the title of the position of chief magistrate of the ancient city-states of Greece. It is the enforcer of law, the imposer of structure.

Anarchy really means “without leaders” or “without rulers”; it means the absence of the kind of law that is enforced from above, instead of rising from below.


Favorite Words, Et Cetera

Posted in Favorite Words with tags , on July, 2010 by melendwyr

I’m not really an ‘originalist’. I don’t subscribe to the idea that the first manifestation of a thing is necessarily better, purer, or more useful than the forms it may later take.

But I do often find that the original usages of words are frequently more illuminating than the meanings to which they have come to refer. Maybe this is because bad people find it in their interests to corrupt the expression of certain ideas, or maybe it’s just a coincidence of linguistic drift.

Nevertheless, I maintain a fondness for cosmopolitan, and the days when it meant more than Ten Exciting New Fashion Atrocities and Five Places Your Man Secretly Hopes You Won’t Put Your Tongue. And more than its formal, modern meaning of “belonging to no specific nation” or “drawn from the world as a whole rather than a nation”.

The suffix -politan comes from the Greek word polis, which means city or city-state, and thus means ‘citizen’. But cosmos is a more complex idea. It roughly translates as ‘universe’, but rather than having spatial or material associations, it refers to the entirety of the natural order; its companion-opposite is chaos, the unformed, undifferentiated, and unruled potentiality from which the world-as-we-know-it sprang.

Someone who is truly cosmopolitan isn’t just a citizen of the world, their allegiance flows to the deepest nature of reality. The degeneration of meaning which has reduced the word to a trashy sex mag for tasteless young women is utterly to be regretted.