American Consequences - February 2019


Love, of course, being the first – if you’re lucky enough to have any. But greed and fear I bet you’ve got. One way to better understand greed is to look at the origin of the word. The word isn’t actually greed . That’s a 17th century innovation, turning the adjective greedy into the noun greed (what linguists call a “back-formation”). The original word in Old English is grædig , which, by the 13th century, becomes the more recognizable gredie , and all it means is “hungry.” The Indo-European root of greedy is gher- , “to like or want.” That gher- root, with various phonetic shifts, shows up all over the place in our family of languages. It’s there in the Latin word hortari , “to cause to strive or desire,” from which we get the English word exhort . And it’s also in the Greek word kharis , “grace, favor,” from which we get charisma . As a word, greedy comes from a really good family. (And I’m feeling really good that for the first time in 50 years, I’ve found a use for my college minor in linguistics.) When we say a word, we invoke a concept. When we denigrate greed, we denigrate hunger. People who don’t eat are sick – or soon will be. Are you a “Market Anorexic”? Are you living in a tent with one change of underwear so that you can convert all your worldly goods into Krugerrands and bury them in a secret part of the campground? Oliver Stone is the real villain in Wall Street – for putting the truth about greed into the mouth of the movie’s bad guy.

Fear – in all its origins, roots, forms, formations, derivations, and cognates – means fear. And where would we be without fear?

And what about fear? The word means... No, I won’t take you down another rabbit hole of etymology. Fear – in all its origins, roots, forms, formations, derivations, and cognates – means fear. And where would we be without fear? Toddlers have none. If you’ve raised a toddler, you know where that leads... right to the basement door and the top step of the long, steep cellar stairs. Or worse. As America’s most profound philosopher, Dave Barry, says to his two-year- old in his profoundly philosophical book Babies and Other Hazards of Sex : “NEVER EVER PUT YOUR FINGER IN THAT PART OF THE DOGGIE!” Usually, as people grow up, they acquire some common sense, which is to say they get frightened. But some don’t. We’ve all known people who had no fear. People who rode their motorcycles like Evel Knieval but without planning in advance which cars, trucks, or Snake River canyon they were going to jump over. People who consumed drugs the way the rest of us consumed Doritos. People who drank so much that they would have halted


February 2019

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