"Ambition" Transcript

By Mark Sundaram

Welcome to the Endless Knot! From the Great Chain of Being to bribery & corruption, today we’re talking about ambition and tracing the changing language of politics through the ages.

Times change, and so do words. Generally today we think of ambition as a positive thing, as in “the ambitious young go-getter”, but when the word entered the English language from French in the 14th century, it started out with the negative sense of “greed for success” — for instance the bishop Reginald Peacock writes about vices such as “pride, ambition, and vainglory” in the 15th century, and in the 16th writer Thomas Nashe calls ambition “any puft up greedy humour of honour or preferment”. You see to the medieval mind ambition, wanting to rise in the world, was a sin. God put people, and indeed everything in creation, into a rigid hierarchical order, and you were where you were because God wanted you there. This notion is called the Great Chain of Being, with God at the very top, and in descending order the ranks of angels, people, animals, plants, and objects. So if you’re a peasant, trying to become a lord is going against God’s plans. Even in Milton’s poem Paradise Lost written in the 17th century, Satan’s sin in rebelling against God stems from “pride and worse ambition”. But gradually a less pejorative sense of the word came to be used more and more, as less negative ideas about ambition spread as well, and by the beginning of the 19th century Milton’s figure of Satan was being reinterpreted by the Romantic poets, like Byron and Shelley, as a heroic figure. And while today the negative sense of ambition is still possible (for example, ambition is often criticized in women), the positive sense is the more common, with the pejorative sense having to be made explicit in phrases such as “overly ambitious”.

But where does the word ambition actually come from? It’s a kind of metaphor, coming from Latin ambitio from the verb ambire which literally means “to go around” from ambi- “around or about” and the verb ire “to go”. This figurative sense grew out of Roman politics. You see if a Roman were running for political office he would go about soliciting votes and support. And so ambitio came to mean canvassing for votes, which could involve flattery and even bribery, so that laws were passed to try to control it. Thus ambitio came to develop the sense of corruption or greed for office, which is how it passed through medieval Latin and French into the pejorative sense in English in the 14th century.

Of course today we don’t think of canvassing as an underhanded action, it’s a legitimate part of the political process, another example of changing values. But etymologically speaking, anyways, canvassing used to be part of quite a different process. You see canvass the activity comes from canvas the cloth and originally refers to tossing something about in a canvas sheet as you might with a small child as a game, and perhaps also to a kind of winnowing process, separating grain from chaff. From this it developed the metaphorical sense of “to discuss or examine something thoroughly”, and from there somehow (though no one’s quite sure how) the modern sense of “to solicit votes”. By the way, the noun canvas comes through Latin cannabis ultimately from a root referring to the fibre hemp, also the source of those English words—which reminds me of the Liberal campaign plank in the last Canadian election about legalizing marijuana. Though the incumbent Conservative government accused their rivals of over-permissiveness, it didn’t stop the Liberals from winning the election, another example of changing values I suppose.

Speaking of cloth and textiles, it’s from this area that we get another common electioneering term, taking us once again to the world of ancient Roman elections. One running for office in Roman elections was commonly called a canditatus, giving us the English word candidate. Candidatus literally means “white” coming from a root meaning “to shine”, and refers to the extra-white toga the candidate would wear when canvassing for those votes, symbolizing his purity. We also get the word candid from this root, a quality modern candidates certainly wish to project in their campaigns. The candidatus would have with him in his canvassing a slave called a nomenclator (literally “name caller”) whose job it was to know the names of all the electors the candidate talked to. From the same root, by the way, we get the English word nomenclature. Oh, and the more formal nomenclature for a candidatus is a petitor, from the root petere ‘to seek, attack’, and fellow candidates are called competitores, from which we get competitors. So in the competitive democratic process there’s an etymological justification for those attack ads, if not an ethical one.

Speaking ofthe democratic process, the word democracy comes from Greek and is often explained as literally meaning “rule of the people”. The first part, demos, meaning “people” or perhaps more accurately “the common people”, comes from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “to divide”, and so means a group in the sense of a part. Fitting I guess, since in the original ancient Athenian democracy, only the free-born Athenian male segment of the population had the right to vote. We could set the word democracy against the word monarchy, literally “rule of one” mono- meaning “one” in Greek. But you’ll notice that the two words aren’t actually parallel. The second part of monarchy comes from the root *arkhein- meaning “to begin, rule, command”, thus appropriately the source of political power. But the second element of the word democracy, Greek kratos, means “strength” and has connotations of violence, coming ultimately from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “hard”. And indeed though today we tend to think of democracy in mostly positive terms, the same was not true in ancient Greece, where attitudes to democracy were decidedly mixed. Indeed philosophers such as Aristotle and Plato, much vaunted today, were quite critical of democracy, which they might almost gloss as “mob rule”. Again, an example of how values have changed.

Today of course, from this same root we also get the word Democrat to refer to one of two main political parties in the United States. Funny thing is, the Democratic party used to be the Republican party. Until 1828, the Democratic Party used to be called the Democratic-Republican Party or simply the Republican Party, until the word Republican was dropped. In fact the term “democratic” was initially an insult, associating them with populism tantamount to mob rule, until the party decided to embrace their populist associations and dropped the word “republican” from their name. Then in 1854 the Republican Party we know today was formed from Democrats and Whig Party members who opposed slavery. On the other hand, until well into the 20th century the Democratic Party used to represent a politically conservative constituency. Once again, funny how things change. By the way, we have 19th century caricaturist Thomas Nast to thank for popularizing the Democratic donkey and inventing the Republican elephant. The donkey was originally a pun on President Jackson’s name — think jack ass — and was used as a criticism implying stubbornness, until the party itself adopted the symbol for its common-man implications. Turns out there really is a lot of flip-flopping in politics!

Oh, & that name Republican? The word republic come from Latin res meaning “thing” and publica “public”, so literally the “public thing”. Latin publicus is related to another Latin word populus, close in sense to Greek demos, thus meaning “people” — in fact we get the English word “people” through Anglo-Norman French from the same Latin word — and of course we can see the word popular in there as well, reminding us of the popularism that was such a sticking point in the political attitudes of both the ancient world and 19th century America. Another word for a popularist is a demagogue formed from that same Greek word demos. The US government was in some ways consciously modelled on the republic of ancient Rome, hence the cachet of the word republican in American political circles from early on.

But getting back to the election trails, we can see an interesting etymological parallel to the Latin-formed word republic. When candidates are out canvassing, we can say that they are on the hustings. The word husting comes from Old Norse hus meaning “house” and ðing meaning, well, “thing”. But thing also used to have the sense of “meeting” or “council”, so the hus-ðing was the meeting house, and the plural hustings came to refer to temporary platforms for political speeches, and then the campaigning process itself. Coming originally from a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “stretch” the word thing came to have the sense of time, as in a stretch of time, in early Germanic, and from that the appointed time for the meeting of a judicial or legislative assembly, and then the assembly itself. From there thing transferred in sense from the subject matter of the assembly to any matter or thing. A long way to go for such an unprepossessing word! In Old Norse the main judicial and legislative assembly was called the Althing, literally the “all-meeting” and this is still the name of the current national parliament of Iceland, making it arguably the oldest extant democracy (though there are competing claims for that title).

Another contribution to political language that ON has made is, surprisingly, in the vocabulary of Canadian politics. The common name for an electoral district in Canada is a riding. Though there’s a folk etymology that this comes from the idea that it’s the area a rider can cover in a single day, the true source of the word is Old Norse þriðjungr, literally a “third part” of something. Originally referring to the three districts into which Yorkshire, England is divided, riding is preserved in the specialized sense of an electoral district in Canadian English.

The root of politics is the ancient Greek city state—literally. The ancient Greek polis means city state, from a Proto-Indo-European root that means “citadel, fortified high place”. We also get the word policy from this same Greek root, and policies should really be the main focus for any politician. By the way, the word police likewise comes from this root, as their main job is maintaining civil order. In ancient Athens, politics and policy were supposed to be important to all the citizens, as it was a direct democracy, meaning that the people voted not for politicians, political representatives, but directly for policy, such as new laws or other affairs of state. Of course in practise some citizens with more expert knowledge tended to lead the politics and policy, while many individuals, although they did their duty and voted, tended to be more concerned with their own private affairs than the affairs of state. And for that reason they were termed idiotes, from a root that means “personal, private”. We get the words idiom and idiosyncrasy from this root as well as the word idiot, because the word came to be used pejoratively of people who didn’t take an interest in the city’s affairs. When early 20th century psychologist and eugenicist Henry Goddard devised categories of mental retardation on the basis of IQ scores, he termed those with scores between 0 and 25 idiots, 26 to 50 imbeciles, and 51 to 70 morons, but these terms are now considered offensive, another example of changing values. So while we shouldn’t call people who don’t concern themselves with the affairs of state idiots, this etymology does highlight the importance of being aware of the policies of our modern political world.

In our modern democracies we no longer vote directly on our laws as the ancient Athenians did, but instead elect legislators, politicians who enact laws, for that purpose. The words elect and election from Latin ex- and legere literally mean “to pick out”. That Latin verb legere, which also gives us words such as select, collect, neglect, elegant and elite (think picked out from the crowd), also had a secondary meaning of “to read” whence the words legible and lecture. If we go back further to Proto-Indo-European we come to a root which means “to collect”, which also probably leads to another Latin word lex meaning “law” from the idea of a collection of laws.  We inherited this root in the English words legal and legislate, so there is an etymological connection in those legislators seeking election. Although the word law looks a bit similar to this root, it’s actually etymologically unconnected coming through Old Norse from a root which means “to lay”, as laws are something laid down.

Once we’ve gone to the polls we say we’ve given our elected officials a mandate to govern. The word poll, coming into English in the 13th century, originally meant “head”, and came from a Middle Dutch word that meant “top, summit”. By the 17th century the word had developed its “collection of votes” sense from the idea of counting heads. But that’s not the only body part in political vocabulary, because mandate comes from the Latin words manus “hand” and dare “to give” so literally to put in the hand — the word command by the way is also from the same source — and this word nicely suggests that the power politicians wield truly comes from the electorate, so make sure you get out and vote. These body words might suggest another metaphor for the structure of society, the body politic, with the head of state and the citizen body.

But getting back to classical influences on the US political system, one of the most notable examples is the legislative body called the Senate, which takes its name from the ancient Roman Senatus, which started as an appointed council of elders, then, as a body of ex-magistrates, became one of the chief governmental institutions in Rome. And if looking at the make-up of the US Senate makes you think they’re just a bunch of old white guys, you’re not far from the truth etymologically speaking. Not only did most of them start off as a candidatus, Senate comes from a root that means “old”, related to the words senior—reflecting the value the Romans placed on the wisdom of their elders—and senile, which may suggest something about how modern values have shifted. Not that senators are senile of course!

The US Senate along with the House of Representatives together make up Congress, a word that comes from Latin roots but does not reflect a Roman institution. Coming from com- meaning together and gradi “to go, step”, congress is thus related to other step words such as gradual, grade and progress. The Latin word congressus could mean “a (friendly) meeting” or “a hostile encounter” — I’ll leave it to you to decide which applies to the US Congress! —  but it’s another example of the changing senses of words over time. Both the Latin and English words can also refer to a sexual encounter, which of course is entirely irrelevant to politics. The more specialized sense of a “meeting of delegates” dates from the 17th century, and the political assembly sense from the 18th.

Other English-speaking countries like Britain, Canada & Australia, instead of having a Congress like the US, have parliaments as their national deliberative bodies. We get the word parliament from the Anglo-Norman French of the middle ages, the word parler meaning “talk”, which some might say is all they do in parliaments! By the way, from this root we also get the words parlance, parley, and parlour (evidently a room set aside for conversation). But it’s not just the word that has a medieval connection.When the old medieval Westminster Palace, which at that point housed the British parliament, burned down in 1834, it was replaced by the current buildings built in the Gothic Revival style, with medieval-style pointed arches and elongated vertical proportions, thus symbolically reaffirming the British commitment to the medieval institution of the monarchy in the face of the trend towards revolution and republicanism in places like the United States and France. Compare this with the American Capitol Hill, in its neo-classical style with Greek pillars and Roman rounded arches. Unlike the US, Canada did not rebel from British rule, and so fittingly the Canadian Parliament Buildings are also built in the Gothic style. Etymology, architecture, and history all going hand in hand! Incidentally if we dig further back in the etymology of parliament, we see that the word comes through Latin from Greek parabole meaning “comparison”, from para meaning “beside” and ultimately a Proto-Indo-European root meaning “to throw”. In addition to obviously parabola and parable, this Indo-European root also gives us such words as symbol, devil, kill, and problem (make of that what you will), as well as the word ball, not the round thing you throw but the dance.

But it’s the other type of ball that we turn to finally, as it’s related to another election word, ballot, which we inherited from Italian. You see to have a secret vote (a word which by the way comes from Latin meaning promise or wish), one would once drop a small coloured ball into a container (the colour black often indicating a negative vote thus giving us the term blackballed). The Proto-Indo-European root that lies behind this word, meaning “to blow, inflate, or swell” also gives us such words as fool, phallus, and bollocks (a somewhat rude British term for testicles). But lest we cynically decide that politicians are a bunch of foolish blowhard dicks talking bollocks, instead we might remind ourselves when we cast our ballots to elect someone with the ambition to become our political representative that, though a society’s values may change over time, and the language change with it, a vote still should be able to force those politicians to carry out the will of the people. It’s the democratic way, after all.

Thanks for watching! If you’ve enjoyed these etymological explorations and cultural connections, please subscribe to this channel or share it; you can also sign up for email notifications of new videos in the description below. And check out our Patreon page, where you can make a contribution to help me make more videosLeave a comment or question, or tweet @Alliterative; you can also read more of my thoughts on my blog at alliterative.net.