David Shariatmadari on What Etymology Can Teach Us About Culture (and Happiness)
This Week on the Book Dreams Podcast
Book Dreams is a podcast for everyone who loves books and misses English class. Co-hosted by Julie Sternberg and Eve Yohalem, Book Dreams releases new episodes every Thursday. Each episode explores book-related topics you can’t stop thinking about—whether you know it yet or not.
If a picture is worth a thousand words, what is the worth of a word? David Shariatmadari, author of Don’t Believe A Word: The Surprising Truth About Language, talks with Julie and Eve about little-known origins of words and how their modern-day usage both reflects and impacts culture. For example, the word “happiness” no longer suggests a fleeting state of mind, as it did before the 18th century; instead, English speakers have come to believe happiness can be a permanent condition. Even the lowly toilet has important cultural connotations! David, Julie, and Eve discuss the evolution of “toilet” as an example of how a word can start out as a euphemism and over time become unsavory and even taboo—and why that phenomenon matters. Julie, Book Dreams’ grammar queen, also investigates whether the rise in texting and decline in the number of words in picture books signify the end of civilization as we know it.
From the episode:
Eve: You make the case that the original meaning of a word is not a guide to its “true meaning.” And the way that a word is used now is what matters. But you also say that etymology has a lot to teach us about culture and history and the way we think. One of the words you used as an example, you talk about happiness. And you said, “The etymology of happiness helps us understand an important cultural shift. While telling us nothing of the real meaning of the English word today, it lets us see happiness in proper perspective and can be used as a tool to interrogate the usefulness of the concept.” How so?
David: So happiness is quite interesting. That element “hap” at the beginning is also seen in another English word—to happen, which kind of gives you a clue as to what the original meaning might have been. The original meaning was closer to something random that occurs that is maybe good for you. So it’s like good fortune, but the “hap” element of it shows that this is unpredictable, it’s fleeting, it’s just a kind of bump of good fortune that might happen. It’s not lasting.
So the idea was that under the influence of enlightenment philosophy in the 18th century in particular, we had the movement towards imagining that man can achieve happiness—indeed that phrase, the pursuit of happiness—and it can be a permanent state of contentment. That was actually a kind of philosophical and political and moral development in Western societies, which then altered the meaning that we habitually associate with that word. It sort of changed it from this unpredictable, fleeting thing to something that we can aspire to that could be more like a permanent state.
And then, of course, there’s a really interesting question of, if there’s a word for this state, which actually in other cultures, there isn’t so much of a concept along those lines. In French, you have bonheur, which literally means “good hour,” so there again, contained in that word, is the concept of it being fleeting. But if in a kind of English tradition, we’ve got used to the idea of happiness being something that lasts, and it’s a permanent state, that actually sets up interesting problems for people if that doesn’t often happen. There’s an aspect of psychology there that’s quite interesting.
Eve: Yeah, we might all be a lot happier if we remember that it’s a fleeting concept.
David: Exactly, yeah. Are we pursuing something that’s unattainable and that’s a kind of conceit of philosophers from the 18th century? It’s just interesting to reflect that that was the potentially slightly more realistic approach to the idea of happiness that our ancestors had. And that that’s preserved in the etymology of the word.
David Shariatmadari studied linguistics at the University of Cambridge and the University of London. He is an editor at the Guardian and writes on language, politics, and culture. He lives in London.