Words are sensemaking tools, a common knowledge base that we count on everyday to communicate with each other and to think quietly inside our heads. However, interpretations evolve in the hands of the collective where every use and misuse carves and re-carves meaning. Etymology is the study of the origin of words and the way in which their meanings have changed over time. Every once in a while, I’ll look up the etymology of a word to better grasp its evolution and subtle references. These exercises help me make sense of the world by shining a light on the push and pull of culture and society. Sometimes I prefer the older meanings.
I’ll share three words here as a thought experiment: Competition, chaos and professional. See if these help with your personal sensemaking.
First, a quick note:
- The portions with etymology may be hard to read. They aren’t complete sentences and are interspersed with italicized root words.
- This is a good resource to look up roots and meanings of words.
- Current meaning: The activity or condition of competing, an event or contest in which people compete. Interaction between organisms, populations, or species, in which birth, growth and death depend on gaining a share of a limited environmental resource.
- Related word: Compete, which means to strive to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority over others who are trying to do the same.
- Etymology: From com- ‘together’ + petere ‘to strive, seek, aim at, rush at’. From Late Latin competere “strive in common, strive after something in company with or together”. In classical Latin “to meet or come together; agree or coincide; to be qualified”. Revived from late 18c. in sense “to strive (alongside another) for the attainment of something”. Use in market sense is from 1840s, in athletics sense attested by 1857.
- Read more: For competition, and compete
- Notice: How the meaning evolves from “strive after something together” to >>> “to strive (alongside another) for the attainment of something” to >>> “to gain or win something by defeating or establishing superiority” in the economic sense.
- Reflections: The classical definition makes me think that one can stive towards a goal alongside dedicated others and could potentially move fluidly between competing and collaborating. That if one fails to achieve what they hoped to, they could potentially gain strength from others working towards the same goal. Competition as defined originally orients me towards the goal and task at hand while the current definition seems to focus more on goal attainment so the individual can thrive while limiting others. The goal feels like a means to a self-serving end and when one loses, as we often do, the loss feels existential. Doesn’t the classical definition feel more psychologically strength-inducing?
- Current meaning: Complete disorder and confusion.
- Etymology: Late 14c. “gaping void; empty, immeasurable space,” from Old French or directly from Latin chaos. From Greek khaos “abyss, that which gapes wide open, that which is vast and empty,” from *khnwos, from PIE root *ghieh- “to yawn, gape, be wide open.” Meaning “orderless confusion” in human affairs is from c. 1600. Chaos theory in the modern mathematical sense is attested from c. 1977.
- Read more: Chaos
- Notice: How the meaning evolves from “that which is vast and empty” to >>> “orderless confusion”
- Reflections: Personally, the classical definition of chaos feels like an invitation to step into the gaping void and create something fresh. The mention of the yawn invokes the subtle connection to boredom, which can be a stepping stone to creativity. Compare this to the modern definition that tunes me into my helplessness vs. the sense of agency and creativity.
- Current meaning: Engaged in a specified activity as one’s main paid occupation rather than as a pastime.
- Etymology: Mid-15c., profeshinalle, in reference to the profession of religious orders (see profession). By 1747 of careers, “pertaining to or appropriate to a profession or calling”, especially of the skilled or learned trades from c. 1793. In sports and amusements, “undertaken or engaged in for money” (opposed to amateur), by 1846.
- Related words:
- Profession: “Vows taken upon entering a religious order”, “public declaration”, noun of action…“declare openly”.
- Profess: “To take a vow” (in a religious order), “avowed,” literally “having declared publicly”, “declare openly, testify voluntarily, acknowledge, make public statement of”. From pro- “forth” + fateri (past participle fassus) “acknowledge, confess”, akin to fari “to speak,”.
- Amateur: “One who has a taste for some art, study, or pursuit, but does not practice it”, from French amateur “one who loves, lover”.
- Read more: For professional, profession and profess, amateur
- Notice: The evolution from “vows taken upon entering”, “declare publicly” and “appropriate for a profession or calling” to >>> one’s main paid occupation
- Reflections: Three themes jump out at me from the original meaning –
- Declaration and taking vows: In the west, people publicly take marriage vows in front of loved ones. The idea is to make your commitments known to self and others so when you falter, you have something to anchor back to. Professionally, vows seem to have been reserved for those practicing religion, medicine or law, i.e. professions with a higher fiduciary duty. But all professions are undertaken in the service of others (vs. amateur, which is mostly for oneself). Vows seem helpful in creating both an internal grounding during times of struggle and a public commitment in how we want to show up in the service of others. We can fashion our vows for our vocation however we want, even if they are said mostly to oneself.
- Practice and action: The meaning implies that we will pursue something actively as opposed to passive interest. We move towards what moves us.
- Money: Of course one has to sustain themselves through work but our modern lives push us to make professional decisions primarily on the last-mile transaction of getting paid instead of upstream engagement and commitment. Research shows that people are willing to earn less if they get to do more meaningful work, so it’s clearly not all about the money. The modern definition makes us think so.
The etymology for all three seems to have one thing in common ― the old definitions felt expansive and humane. They invoked us to step into broader and better parts of ourselves. The current ones feel constrained and transactional. They invoke us to step into fear. Meanings evolve in response to society but society also evolves based on the meanings we create. Reduction happens gradually, with enough repetition, and it impacts our day-to-day.
We don’t have to go digging into the meaning of every word but if our life is being commandeered by a word, it’s helpful to zoom out and see if it might be more liberating to anchor our thinking to a more expansive definition.
“In a sense, words are encyclopedias of ignorance because they freeze perceptions at one moment in history and then insist we continue to use these frozen perceptions when we should be doing better.” ― Edward de Bono: Maltese physician, psychologist, author, inventor and philosopher