March 15, 2006

Ayn Rand, linguist?

Joe Gordon sent in a link to a blog post by TBoggs commenting on a quote from Ayn Rand's Atlas Shrugged:

"If you ask me to name the proudest distinction of Americans, I would choose--because it contains all the others--the fact that they were the people who created the phrase 'to make money.' No other language or nation had ever used these words before; men had always thought of wealth as a static quantity--to be seized, begged, inherited, shared, looted or obtained as a favor. Americans were the first to understand that wealth has to be created. The words 'to make money' hold the essence of human morality."

Joe's question is of course a linguistic one: "Is that even close to accurate?  Is 'make money' such a rare phrase?"

I don't know how to answer the statistical question: what fraction of history's money-using cultures have described the accumulation of wealth by using a verb that can also mean "create" or "construct"? But it's easy to discover that we Americans were not the first to do so.

If Ms. Rand had looked up make in the OED she would have discovered a pre-Columbian citation:

1472 R. CALLE in Paston Lett. (1976) II. 356, I truste be Ester to make of the leeste l marke.

(I believe that in modern orthography this would be "I trust by Easter to make of the least one mark".) The letter's context makes it clear that Richard Calle was not writing to Margery Paston about a counterfeiting scheme. The quantity expression "1 marke of money" is antique, but the sense in which Paston anticipated "making" that amount seems contemporary enough.

If she had looked up pecunia in Lewis and Short, she would have learned that the Romans used the analogous locution:

I. property, riches, wealth (cf.: divitiae, res, bona, etc.).
I. In gen. ... pecuniam facere, to accumulate property, Cic. Div. 1, 49, 111

Lewis and Short choose "accumulate" as an English gloss, which Rand (or her mouthpiece Francisco d'Anconia) might have pounced on as an example of the old-fashioned thinking that sees wealth as a conserved quantity like gold, rather than one that can be created from nothing, like poetry. But L&S are citing a thoroughly capitalistic (or at least market-oriented) passage in Cicero's De Divinatione:

XLIX 109 ... Quos prudentes possumus dicere, id est providentes, divinos nullo modo possumus, non plus quam Milesium Thalem, qui, ut obiurgatores suos convinceret ostenderetque etiam philosophum, si ei commodum esset, pecuniam facere posse, omnem oleam, ante quam florere coepisset, in agro Milesio coemisse dicitur.

In Falconer's translation:

Such men we may call 'foresighted' - that is, 'able to forsee the future'; but we can no more apply the term 'divine' to them than we can apply it to Thales of Miletus who, as the story goes, in order to confound his critics and thereby show that even a philosopher, if he sees fit, can make money, bought up the entire olive crop in the district of Miletus before it had begun to bloom.

If Ms. Rand had looked up faire in Dictionnaire de L'Académie française, 8th Edition (1932-5), she would have found that

FAIRE signifie aussi Amasser, assembler, mettre ensemble, en parlant d'Argent ou des autres choses dont on a besoin de se pourvoir. Il tâche de se faire quelque argent.

FAIRE also means to Amass, assemble, put together, in speaking of Money or of other things that one needs to provide for oneself. He tries to make himself some money.

I don't know for sure that this usage in French is an old one, but given that the corresponding expression existed in Latin, I think it's a good bet. (And Rand's Francisco d'Anconia would again have pointed triumphantly to the academicians' assumption that this sense of faire is equivalent to "assemble" rather than "create" -- but that tells us about the views of the dictionary writers, and not necessarily those of the users of the language.)

I don't have time to look into Greek, Sanskrit, Hebrew and so on, but we've established that a few minutes in the reference section of a good public library would have allowed Ms. Rand to debunk her little linguistic homily. I don't know whether she would have cared: as always with such arguments from etymology (see here and here), the point is not philological but metaphysical. At least Rand's fable has the merit that if the claimed facts of language were true, they would be relevant to the argument.

On a related topic, I think I owe John Powers and Cullen Murphy an apology. This is not because I criticized them for lexicographical non-feasance -- they were guilty as charged. But I was wrong to imply a falling off from previously higher standards of scholarship:

Can't anybody use a dictionary anymore? I enjoy a good curmudgeonly rant about how English is going to the dogs these days, I really do. But why can't the journalists who crank out such screeds check their lexical prejudices against a good dictionary or two?

Since Atlas Shrugged was published in 1957, Rand's lexicographical insouciance antedates theirs by almost half a century.

[Update: Rob Groves writes that

... there exists an adjective in Greek, Plutopoio/s (πλυτοποιο/ς) which the full Lidell and Scott 9th ed. cite as wealth-creating and show it being applied to nouns like te/chne (τε/κνη)=skill, talent etc.  and chre^ma (χρη^μα) =good, possession, etc.  

Here's the link -- the transliteration used at Perseus is plouto-poios. ]

[Update 1/27/2007 -- John Cowan writes:

it's clear that Richard Calle in 1472 said "at the leeste L marke", not "at the leeste 1 marke"; in other words, "at least 50 marks". Wikipedia says that a mark after the Norman Conquest was 2/3 of a pound sterling, so he's talking about 33.33 pounds sterling.

How much is that? Following the method at, which takes into account the Phelps Brown-Hopkins consumables index value for 1472 of 104 and the December 2006 U.S. Consumer Price Index of 201.8, we get about $35,000 in current U.S. money. Definitely "making money".

In any case, a little knowledge of the history of economics would have told Rand that the counterpart to the "Spanish theory of value" (paraphrased by a Spaniard of my acquaintance as "Let's bring lots of gold and silver into the country, and we'll ALL get rich!") was the "English theory of value" (that wealth is a product of laboring), not the "American theory of value". But perhaps to point this out is to engage in a battle of wits with the unarmed.

Wow. ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at March 15, 2006 12:07 PM