September 04, 2005

No pain, no gain?

Even distinguished academics suffer on occasion from the Etymological Fallacy, according to which they believe the current meanings and uses of words can be illuminated -- perhaps even explained -- by their etymological sources.  Here are William Damon, Anne Colby, Kendall Bronk, and Thomas Ehrlich on "Passion & mastery in balance: toward good work in the professions", from Daedalus, summer 2005, p. 28-9:

All professionals must learn a formidable array of skills, habits, and understandings to master their fields.  But beyond this, to accomplish good work consistently, they must acquire a special orientation, a commitment to use their mastery to fulfill a mission that goes beyond the self.  It is the pursuit of a mission that inspires passion.  This does not mean that pursuing a mission is always pleasurable: we do not agree with the pop psychology view that equates meaningful work with fun.  Indeed, the etymological root of 'passion' is passe - or 'to suffer.'  We are aware that pursuing a noble mission is often painful.  Yet it is satisfying in a way that routinized, fill-the-hours work is not.  Good work is always mindful of its mission; and passion, whether painful or pleasurable, both energizes the mission and provides and enduring emotional reward that goes beyond pleasure or pain.

It's been a while since we looked at appeals to etymology here at Language Log Plaza, and the most recent discussion (you can start with Mark Liberman on hallucinate and work back from there) was about appeals to false etymologies.  Damon et al. are at least correctly tracking passion back to a Latin element meaning 'suffer' (though they have balled up the details -- see below).  Still, this appeal to etymology is a very silly idea.

Etymology is fascinating, but the whole point with passion (and many other words) is that things have changed.  If I tell you that modern English head is directly descended from OE heafod, which meant, well, 'head', no flash of illumination will descend on you.  Not much has changed.  But people get all excited about metaphorical and metonymical changes, missing the crucial point, that in such non-head-like cases, things really aren't what they once were.  Modern English nice can be traced back to a word meaning 'ignorant', and silly to a word meaning 'blessed, holy', but knowing that provides me with no insight into modern English.  Why should the historical connection of passion with suffering be any different?

A digression on some of the etymological details...  The relevant Latin element is the verb root pat- (stem pati:-) 'suffer pain', whose present participle lies behind modern English patient, both adjective and noun.  Both adjective and noun patient have lost the component of literal suffering, in the case of the noun in favor of the sense 'one who undergoes, is affected by, an action' -- so that in semantics it now denotes a participant role in events (one prototypically conveyed by direct objects, as in I moved the box and I admire Kim, but also sometimes by subjects, as in Kim got the Nobel Prize and Kim was given 500 dollars).

The past participle stem for pat- was pass-, from which an adjective stem passiv- was derived.  This is the source of the modern English passive, adjective and noun, both of which maintain the 'undergo' sense of pat-, but not the earlier 'suffer pain' sense.  Note that, like patient, passive has developed a special grammatical sense -- for one type of construction, as in Kim was given 500 dollars, in which the subject denotes the, yes, patient participant in an event.

Now we're up to the Latin noun that is the ancestor of modern English passion: passio: (stem passio:n-), built on pass- with the abstract-noun-deriving suffix -io:n- (still to be seen all over the place in modern English).  (I don't know where Damon et al. got their verb stem passe, but they should have checked the OED.)

The noun stem passio:n- originally would have meant 'suffering', and indeed passion is still used in this sense in the very specialized context of the sufferings of Jesus (The Passion of the Christ, passion play, etc.).  But early on -- the OED Online draft revision of 2005 lays out these changes in some detail -- it developed not only an 'undergoing' sense ('fact or condition of being acted upon') parallel to that of patient and passive, a sense that seems to have gone out of fashion some 500 years ago, but also a separate extended sense, a generalization from experiencing pain to experiencing any sort of intense feeling or emotion, especially love or sexual desire (His voice was husky with passion), or, in another direction, enthusiasm or zeal (a passion for astrology), or, in still another direction, anger or rage (a fit of passion).

The result of all this semantic radiation, generalization, and specialization is that modern English passion has a variety of senses -- among them, love or desire, enthusiasm or zeal, and anger or rage (all attested from the 16th century on) -- that are not directly connected to one another and have nothing in particular to do with suffering.  It might be that love hurts, and that "pursuing a noble mission is often painful", but insofar as these claims are true, they're observations about the human condition, not about the meanings or histories of words.

The persistence of the Etymological Fallacy among intellectuals is in some ways deeply puzzling.  When considering aspects of culture other than language -- practices, customs, attitudes, beliefs, values, and so on -- intellectuals tend to fix on things that have held constant through history, things parallel to the English word for 'head'.  Cultural historians, for instance, will tend to see certain modern American attitudes as rooted in, and continuous with, aspects of the early American experience, like beginning a new life in a strange land and having an apparently limitless frontier to settle.  Isolated survivals are fascinating, but they are not appealed to as ways of illuminating or explaining the present by the past.

But when it comes to language, intellectuals incline towards a kind of essentialism: words have an essential core of meaning (discoverable by examining their histories), which persists through time. Possibly what's going on here is that a lot of people are taking the connection between words and their referents to be a natural, rather than a conventional, one; there's a lot of word magic around.  If so, linguists have work to do getting out the news about the arbitrariness of the sign.

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at September 4, 2005 08:09 PM