Etymology can be really captivating. I still remember the delight I felt when I discovered that ‘preposterous’ means literally ‘ass-backwards’ and that ‘posthumous’ means ‘after you’re planted.’
But sometimes the history of words can give us far more than entertaining origins and hidden connotations. Language changes as we change, so etymology can be as much a history of ideas as it is a simple chronicle of words. Every now and then you can find words whose meanings have changed to mark the distance we have traveled since they were first formed.
For instance: Once upon a time I was reading a novel of the old empire at Constantinople. Justinian the Great was sending an army to try to rescue Rome from the Goths. As the armada was leaving, it was also being reviewed by Justinian himself. All the soldiers and sailors lined the rails and chanted a traditional slogan, “Juntini tu vincas! Caesar et imperator! Invictus, felix, semper augustus!”
Having had four years of Latin back sometime before the Flood, I still have my Collins Latin Gem Dictionary and a vague memory of the grammar. Naturally, I tried to translate it:
“Juntini tu vincas!” Hmmm. Not too hard. “Justinian, you conquer!”
What’s next? “Caesar et imperator!” Easy. “Caesar and emperor!”
Now for that last bit. “Invictus, felix, semper augustus!” Invictus just means ‘invincible.’ And (for a wonder) I actually remembered from class that the title augustus had gone through, over the years, an odd series of successive meanings, from ‘increased’ to ‘stern’ to ‘virtuous’ to ‘majestic’. Here, it obviously meant ‘majestic’ or ‘regal’.
But what about that felix in the middle? Like a cat? Like a cartoon? Uh, don’t think so. The book says ‘fruitful,’ but that didn’t sound right either. I played with it a while until I finally realized it was the root word for ‘felicitous.’ Aha! Must mean ‘happy.’
“Justinian, you conquer! Caesar and emperor! Invincible, happy, and always regal!” Done.
It was only then that I discovered that the author had kindly included a translation. All in all, I hadn’t done too badly. His rendition was, “Justinian, thou conquer!” Well, OK, I rarely use ‘thou,’ myself. “Caesar and emperor!” Perfect. That last bit he rendered, “Invincible and beloved by fortune, always regal!”
Say what? “Beloved by fortune?”
Doing a little research, I discovered that felix originally meant to be beloved by the goddess Fortuna. Fortuna was the goddess of chance, who arbitrarily bestowed gifts on those she loved. In our terms, felix meant ‘lucky.’
Odd, that one of the three greatest adjectives they could bestow, on their august emperor, right along with ‘regal’ and ‘invincible’ was ‘lucky.’
I thought about it for a while, trying to understand what it revealed of the kind of world view that the Romans had. They lived in a world where death, from war, disease, or what have you was sudden and capricious. Where wealth or rank came to the very few and rarely through merit. Where serfdom was the lot of most and slavery the all too common fate of the unlucky. To put it another way, they lived in a world where 99% of life was beyond human control.
To them, happiness was a passive thing, beyond their power to command. It dropped only upon the fortunate few.
Is it surprising, then, that they saw a good fate as the blind gift of an arbitrary god? That their idea of happiness was almost interchangeable with good luck?
At this point I reined myself in a bit. I decided I had an interesting idea, but was extrapolating a bit wildly, building a whole identity of meaning on a single, simplistic etymology. A bit of research was called for.
Turned out there is something nearly universal here. English has the same idea. The very word ‘happy’ actually come from the Old Norse word happ, which means (guess what) ‘chance’ or ‘luck.’ We still keep that idea in such words as ‘hapless’ and ‘mayhap.’
In German, it’s Glücklich, which means ‘happy’ or ‘lucky’. In French it’s Heureux which means,… Well, you get the idea.
There are other examples, but I think we can say that, as human beings, the less in control we felt over the world, the more we felt happiness was in the power of gods or chance. The corollary was that there was no notion that lives or times had any particular natural direction of improvement. Progressus, the Latin for ‘progress,’ simply meant a move forward, with no connotation of betterment. Forward was just a direction.
After the fall of Rome and the supremacy of the Christian church, happiness as a goal and the idea of progress towards betterment receded even further from daily life. The Church (for the first twelve or thirteen centuries, anyway) was obsessed with the idea that we were living in the Latter Days, a time of progressive degradation that would lead to the Second Coming. If life was “nasty, brutish, and short,” well, it should be. It was all part of God’s plan.
The Renaissance and, still more, the Enlightenment introduced two radical ideas: First, that our fate could be taken into our own hands and second that tomorrow could be better than today. This second introduced the idea that time’s arrow could carry something called Progress. Both of these ideas said that tomorrow could be made better than today.
There is one historical document that gives us, unintentionally, a look at these breathtaking changes in our view of the nature of the world. We have, we are told, certain unalienable rights. That among these are “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Now there is a radical idea. Grammar has moved from the passive to the active. No longer is happiness simply a matter of luck. Happiness is something that can be pursued, presumably with some hope of success.
Now it would be absurd to talk about pursuing luck. You can’t catch luck. It either comes or it doesn’t. So happiness is no longer simply a matter of luck. For it to be pursuable, the world must be, at least partially, within our control. The nature of the world has changed. For along with the idea that happiness is an achievable goal, the Renaissance has made the word Progress to mean the idea of an incremental improvement of daily life. In the Enlightenment, it, too, has become a goal, the natural, logical goal of any civilized society.
The evolution continued up to our own time. Today, Happiness has become not merely the inevitable goal of every sane individual; we have come to think of it as a natural condition, like health.
When we become sick, we run to a doctor and expect that a magic wand will be waved and we will return to our natural condition of good health. Likewise, we will run to another kind of doctor and complain, “I’m just not happy,” expecting that, too, to be cured. Through some strange chemistry, happiness has evolved to this. First it was a rare thing over which we had no power. Then it became a quarry we had some chance of catching. Now it is a birthright.
Alongside happiness, Progress has evolved as well. It has grown from a brand new idea into our secular religion. It is a faith we believe in with all the fervency that a medieval monk believed in the Second Coming. Both inevitable transformations that will repair all ills.
Looking at all this, I don’t know what is most remarkable: How far we have come, how little we are aware of the change, or how far we have to go.
Certainly there is a lot to be criticized in a world where Progress is a faith and Happiness an endowment. For one thing, I would argue that there should be a lot more of our own sweat in the somewhat pallid contemporary idea of happiness. Human happiness seems to me to reside more in the process of achieving some hoped for goal than in some simpleminded state of being. Then, too, history is too full of the collapse of civilizations for me ever to feel that progress is inevitable.
Having said all that, I still think that if Thomas More could view our world, where happiness is so common as to appear a legacy and the progressive betterment of mankind so inevitable as to become a faith, he would declare it, at least in the material sense, Utopia.