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February 7, 2005 9:24 AM   Subscribe

Freedom's Not Just Another Word (NYT). The Sumerian "ama-ar-gi," found on tablets in the ruins of the city-state of Lagash, which flourished four millenniums ago, derived from the verb "ama-gi," which literally meant "going home to mother." The Latin libertas and Greek eleutheria both indicated a condition of independence, unlike a slave. Freedom, however, comes from the same root as friend, an Indo-European word that meant "dear" or "beloved." It meant a connection to other free people by bonds of kinship or affection, also unlike a slave. Liberty and freedom both meant "unlike a slave." But liberty meant privileges of independence; freedom referred to rights of belonging.
posted by semmi (27 comments total)

 
The catch, of course, is that people become more truly free only when the central ideas are respected: liberty as the rights of individual independence, freedom in the rights of collective belonging. Many on the right and left continue to call for one idea without the other, but the strongest ground is in the center, where they come together.
posted by semmi at 9:27 AM on February 7, 2005


the terra-ists hate our freedumb
posted by grytpype at 9:43 AM on February 7, 2005


You know I almost stayed away from this because I really have little interest these days in comments like grytpype's above, or their counterparts from the other side.

However, that would have been an error - this is an interesting editorial about the general concept of freedom, and while I would have liked even a bit more depth in the liguistic and historical areas, it seems well worth reading whatver side of the fence you're on.
posted by freebird at 10:07 AM on February 7, 2005


I would have liked even a bit more depth in the liguistic and historical areas

Me too freebird, and I posted it in the hope, as I oft do, that some of our specialists here at MeFi would add their expertise to enrich on it.
posted by semmi at 10:20 AM on February 7, 2005


Wow, it sounds like David Hackett Fischer has rediscovered Isaiah Berlin's "Two Concepts of Liberty" and/or much of Hannah Arendt's work on human rights.

I don't know how I feel about these kinds of discussions being toned down to the level of mass media op-ed pieces. On the one hand, no one will learn the concepts if it's sitting in a library somewhere (which is very sad given the general level of education amongst pundits). But on the other hand, there is just so much of the debate that makes it much more complicated than what we see in a column and a headline.

One of the reasons we can't get freedom right is that we haven't solved some of the philosophical problems with it yet. And everyone is so impatient to solve them that we end up with poorly thought-out solutions. Either that or because someone can't think up a solution in a weekend they think the problems are "unsolvable".
posted by ontic at 10:20 AM on February 7, 2005


I guess freedom must come from the sanskrit "priya", which does indeed mean beloved. But the OED adds a bit to that:

Hide Additions*

[Com. Teut.: OE. fréo, frío, fri{asg} corresponds to OFris. frî, OS. frî (recorded only as n. and in the compound frî-lîk; Du. vrij), OHG. frî (MHG. vrî, mod.Ger. frei), ON. *frí-r (lost exc. in the compound friáls:{em}*frî-hals ‘free-necked’, free; the mod.Icel. frí, Sw., Da. fri are adopted from Ger.), Goth. frei-s:{em}OTeut. *frijo- free:{em}OAryan *priyo-, represented by Skr. priyá dear, Welsh rh{ycirc}dd free, f. root *pri to love (Skr. prî to delight, endear; OSl. prijatel{ibreve} friend, Goth. frijôn, OE. fréon to love, whence FRIEND).
The primary sense of the adj. is ‘dear’; the Germanic and Celtic sense comes of its having been applied as the distinctive epithet of those members of the household who were connected by ties of kindred with the head, as opposed to the slaves. The converse process of sense-development appears in Lat. l{imac}ber{imac} ‘children’, literally the ‘free’ members of the household.]
posted by metaculpa at 10:59 AM on February 7, 2005


Fascinating stuff actually - the difference between "Freedom" and "Liberty" has interested me for a while. In general, I enjoy trying to tease apart the differences between words we now tend to use as synonyms; "horrible", "terrible", and "awful" for instance. But this particular case seems of real importance right now - both the Right and the Left in the US seem unclear on whether we want to export Freedom or Liberty or both or neither; clarifying this seems like it would have real effects on the choice of policy.

Somehow though, I just don't really see W, Coulter, Moore and say Boxer sitting down to debate the difference...I however will be pondering the relation between "Free" and "Friend" for some time now, thanks!
posted by freebird at 11:23 AM on February 7, 2005


Etymology is not destiny. I wish people would discuss the meanings of words without feeling the need to drag in Indo-European connections that may make us go "oh, wow, cool" but are irrelevant to current usage, which is what determines meaning. In the English language, freedom has nothing to do with friend. (Furthermore, the idea that Sumerian ama-ar-gi derived from the verb ama-gi is only a hypothesis, untestable after so many millennia.)

In general, I enjoy trying to tease apart the differences between words we now tend to use as synonyms

That's great, as long as you tease them apart based on English usage rather than Latin definitions.
posted by languagehat at 1:18 PM on February 7, 2005


As usual Languagehat, I find your position preposterous and wonderful.

I wish people would discuss the meanings of words without feeling the need to drag in Indo-European connections

First of all, are you saying that if "freedom" and "liberty" are used by most people as synonyms, we must abandon the subtle differences between the two concepts just to meet your idea of "standard English usage"? Aren't you doing the very thing you accuse the pedants of doing, by insisting that the "common" usage is the only right one?

OK, that's a straw man argument, I'll admit: I think you mean that if the majority of people I speak with use language a certain way, I'd be a fool to use it some other way, at the expense of clear communication, just because I think "they use their language wrong". And I agree with you (or my guess at your intent) to a certain extent: I just deny that there has to be a single choice. If I'm talking with random people at a bar, it's ridiculous to insist on using (say) the difference between old meanings of "terrible" and "awful" to make a point. But if I'm in a room full of people who are aware of the differences, and find them interesting, it's just as foolish to insist we use the same language we'd use at a bar.

So I deny your faux-populist assertion that the "common usage" (a vague notion in itself) is the only one you should use. Appropriate language is not independent of context, and by definition this thread has some participants who find the relation to ancient languages interesting and relevant.

Second: your claim that Indo-European Connections are "irrelevant to current usage" is disingenous, I think. Firstly, we're not just talking about "current usage" - the development and history of language is itself interesting. Secondly, culture and language are closely intertwined, and both go back an awful long way. So if one is interested in the (current) cultural and philosophical aspects of a concept like "Freedom", surely you don't deny that there is value in looking at its historical context? And if so, how can you ignore language? And thus, if the concepts of "Freedom" and "Frienship" had a relationship in some of the wellsprings of our modern culture, isn't it worth considering how that may be relevent today? No-one is saying that "Freedom" today means "bonded by kinship to a clan head; thus not a slave" - but that the modern concept has those origins has interesting implications on what it *does* mean today.

tease them apart based on English usage rather than Latin definitions.

This I find ridiculous. Are you seriously suggesting that we should ignore (one of) the roots of our language(s)? So much of modern vocabulary only makes sense if you know some basic latin roots; are you suggesting a word like "automotive" should be considered as some virgin birth, Athena spring from Zeus' brow? People should simply memorize its meaning, rather than being able to infer it from its parts? Would you also then argue that studying history is a waste of time, because all that matters is how things are now?
posted by freebird at 2:19 PM on February 7, 2005


l'hat, etymology is not destiny, that's true. But there are different, not obviously compatible ideas that get blocked into the same cell as "freedom" or "liberty", and the etymological door is as good a door as any to get into that room.

What the etymological approach teaches us, additionally, in this case, is that our words for "freedom" all source back (or seem to) to the idea of being "not-slave."

It is instructive, edifying, thus, to think of different ways of conceptualizing freedom, depending on who's talking about it. Greeks conceptualized it from the perspective of the masters: Freedom for them was the ability to own. Freedom for American slaves meant the freedom to not be owned -- and one of the key manifestations of that would be the freedom to belong to a family (which was an entity with a different legal meaning for slaves and masters), or the freedom to choose your own community (which free folks had, in principle, and slaves didn't, either in principle or in fact).

So what ends up being important is not the fact that "freedom" and "liberty" source back to different ideas abouy what constitutes liberty and freedom; what's important is that we don't think about the difference.
posted by lodurr at 2:20 PM on February 7, 2005


One of the reasons we can't get freedom right is that we haven't solved some of the philosophical problems with it yet. And everyone is so impatient to solve them that we end up with poorly thought-out solutions. Either that or because someone can't think up a solution in a weekend they think the problems are "unsolvable".

A better way of putting it might be that the only "problem" associated with freedom is that it requires constant care, practice and humility --> it takes work to be free. In order to be free, one must willingly submit oneself to the work freedom requires. But people in America especially - on both sides of the political spectrum - confuse freedom with "the right to do whatever the hell I want", or greed. Which was one of the points of the etymology in the article - not to dictate the future, but to shed light on the present.
posted by eustacescrubb at 4:48 PM on February 7, 2005


"[T]he only "problem" associated with freedom is that it requires constant care, practice and humility --> it takes work to be free."

You are confusing freedom in a political sense with fredom in some other, perhaps metaphysical sense. The conception of freedom in the sense that one attains freedom through certain action and work is fine as long as it remains a personal, private conception of freedom. If your conception of freedom through work, or freedom through qualities like "caring" or "humility" is confused with political freedom then totalitarianism peeks through. You may seek to coerce me to be humble or coerce me to work at being free because of your privileged position of knowledge as to what my freedom consists of.

Political freedom=non-interference.

Caring and humility are values of a different kind.
posted by Ugandan Discussions at 5:22 PM on February 7, 2005


I'm a kind of freedom-purist. I do think freedom is the right to do whatever the hell I want. We need a word for that, so why not freedom? The problem is that while many people want the right to do whatever the hell they want, they don't want other people to have that right at the same time. It gets too messy and state-of-naturish. So most people end up actually wanting a balance between their own freedom and happiness. Total freedom is undesirable if everyone else has it too.

This seems like the right position to me, although the details are maddeningly complex.

But Berlin, Arendt, and this guy want something different. They want us to think that freedom is completely good, but the "freedom" they want us to like is one in which everyone subtley adjusts their own desires so as to never really want something that would be potentially destabilizing. There might be manageable systems like this (I think morality may offer one of them), but the possibility for dangerous conformism, even fascism, is quite severe when we start down this road.
posted by ontic at 5:30 PM on February 7, 2005


"Freedom's just another word for nothing left to lose
Nothing ain't worth nothing but its free
Feeling good was easy when Bobby sang the blues
And buddy that was good enough for me
Good enough for me and Bobby McGee"

posted by PurplePorpoise at 5:40 PM on February 7, 2005


Total freedom is undesirable if everyone else has it too.

Agreed. It would be completely unworkable. The strong would oppress the weak.

But Berlin, Arendt, and this guy want something different. They want us to think that freedom is completely good...

I'm guessing I'm "this guy". Actually I don't and nor do I think Berlin thinks that. Freedom is a good among others. Sometimes it may have to be squeezed and limited to achieve other goods. Equality, public health etc all at times require limitations on freedom. The important point is to recognise curtailments on freedom as curtailments, and not as a means to freedom or some well intentioned but much perverted idea of freedom. If you interfere then there is a net loss of freedom whether justified or not.

the "freedom" they want us to like is one in which everyone subtley adjusts their own desires so as to never really want something that would be potentially destabilizing. There might be manageable systems like this (I think morality may offer one of them), but the possibility for dangerous conformism, even fascism, is quite severe when we start down this road.

What do you mean by "Fascism" here? I can't work it out.
posted by Ugandan Discussions at 5:47 PM on February 7, 2005


I do think freedom is the right to do whatever the hell I want. We need a word for that, so why not freedom?

That's fine, but in that case you may need some other words too.

If someone owns you as a slave, and has the ability to restrict your every move - but chooses not to exercise that right at all: are you free?

What if noone restricts or controls you directly, but circumstance dictates that some courses of action are closed to you - are you free?
posted by freebird at 8:40 PM on February 7, 2005


Sorry UGD, by "this guy" I meant Fischer, not you. Hmm, unless you are Fischer. If not, I agree with everything you said earlier. (Though I do believe Berlin's second concept of liberty can be dangerous newspeak.) And the fascism I was talking about would be a society in which freedom had come to mean so in line with "the common opinion" or the common good that someone who dared question it for individualistic reasons was a threat.

Freebird: I agree we need some other words. But to keep things simple, if I can do whatever I want (that is, I suppose, biologically possible) then I am free. This is the notion that needs to be maintained. If "liberty" means something different and is being sold at a cheaper price, you're not getting a deal.

The case of the slaveowner would seem like an instance in the state of nature where there is someone much more powerful than me who simply chooses not to exercise that power. But as long as I am allowed to do whatever I want, I would be free. (And "ownership" ceases to mean much.)

But I think I see where this is going... What is the difference between an enforced law and someone with the means to kill you but doesn't? I will have to think about this.
posted by ontic at 9:14 PM on February 7, 2005


surely you don't deny that there is value in looking at its historical context?

Well, actually, no I don't; why do you think I got into linguistics? I love etymology with an unholy passion, and there are few things I'd rather do than spend time poring over Indo-European connections. freebird and lodurr both seem to wildly overinterpret what I'm saying. Of course the history of words is interesting, of course it's fun and educational to talk about; what I'm saying is that it does not determine today's meaning. And when you focus on this, you agree with it, however reluctantly:

I think you mean that if the majority of people I speak with use language a certain way, I'd be a fool to use it some other way, at the expense of clear communication, just because I think "they use their language wrong". And I agree with you (or my guess at your intent) to a certain extent...

But you're all caught up in the glamour of Latin and other classical sources. Let's look at a different sort of example. Did you know that the word bead is from an Old English word meaning 'prayer'? I'm betting not; either way, can you honestly say that that knowledge affects how you use (or will use) the word? No, you can't. You learned the word in the context of 'little round things that get strung on necklaces' and that's how you use it; its earlier history is irrelevant. And what about all the other words whose history is unknown to you? Do you feel uncomfortable using them until you've checked out their etymologies? If you hit the dreaded "unknown origin," do you stop using them for fear you'll do it wrong? Of course not. Etymology is wonderful stuff, but it is separate from semantics.

are you suggesting a word like "automotive" should be considered as some virgin birth, Athena spring from Zeus' brow? People should simply memorize its meaning, rather than being able to infer it from its parts?

If that's the way you feel, how do you deal with unanalyzable words like boy and goat?

It is instructive, edifying, thus, to think of different ways of conceptualizing freedom

Yes it is, but we can only do so constructively if we forget about the Indo-European root *pri- and focus on how people talk and write today.

I swear, it gets wearying having people endlessly put up straw man arguments, even when they realize that's what they're doing, because those unscientific ideas our fourth-grade English teachers handed us are so firmly implanted. I'm not saying etymology is unimportant or uninteresting; I'm not saying we shouldn't discuss fine shades of meaning (that's another favorite pastime of mine); all I'm saying is that the two are separate, and I think if you let yourself think about it rather than reflexively complain about my attitude ("preposterous!") you might even agree with me.
posted by languagehat at 9:32 PM on February 7, 2005


Yeah, but languagehat, if we agree with you, we couldn't play the fun reindeer game that is the use of etymology in politics.
posted by TwelveTwo at 12:47 AM on February 8, 2005


it does not determine today's meaning

This does not imply that it can have no bearing whatsoever, which it seems to me is what you're saying. Conversely, I'm certainly not claiming that the one entirely determines the other.

the word bead is from an Old English word meaning 'prayer'? [...] can you honestly say that that knowledge affects how you use (or will use) the word? No, you can't.

Yes, I can. Or at least that such knowledge sometimes does. I'm quite sure that I'll think about that beautiful fact sometimes when I use the word "bead" in future. Will that directly affect my usage? Maybe - suppose I use the connection in a poem: does that count? Suppose I simply think about doing so?

how do you deal with unanalyzable words like boy and goat?

Eh? I think it's OK to think differently about different words, I don't really follow you here.

I'm not saying etymology is unimportant or uninteresting; I'm not saying we shouldn't discuss fine shades of meaning [...]; all I'm saying is that the two are separate

You seem to me to be saying more than that: you seem to say they have no relationship.

I try to be explicit when I know I'm overstating your case, but you insist one must "tease them apart based on English usage rather than Latin definitions" and such history is "irrelevant to current usage", which are fairly extreme positions (emphasis mine).
posted by freebird at 1:03 AM on February 8, 2005


OK, OK, I'll cop to stating my case a bit heavily, since you're being so reasonable and all. But you have to understand my frustration at constantly dealing with people who parrot silly rules and ideas they picked up behind the barn and refuse to listen to reason. How's this: There is a relationship between etymology and meaning, a historical one that can show how the meaning got to where it is today. It can be a useful mnemonic (as with automotive), and it can certainly affect how one uses the word in special contexts: as you say, it can be a wonderful companion in writing poetry, and of course two classicists will have fun playing off etymology in ways that would be incomprehensible to those without Greek and Latin. But those same classicists will exhibit a horror at bastard words like television (half Greek, half Latin) and allegedly redundant phrases like the hoi polloi that is equally incomprehensible to others, and my point there would be that there is no reason for others to blindly adopt the special attitude of classicists, who are no more authoritative about the English language than anybody else. (If you doubt that, think about the claims of Semiticists to determine usage of words derived from Hebrew, Arabic, Aramaic, and the like. Will you wait for Malayo-Polynesianists and Sinologists to fight it out over the etymology of ketchup before you decide how to spell and use it?)

My point is that, as enlightening and enjoyable as etymology is, it cannot be used to determine current meaning; my larger point is that you do not need to know any other languages in order to speak English correctly. If we can agree on that, I'm perfectly willing, indeed eager, to share your pleasure in the shades of meaning and the special usages.
posted by languagehat at 5:53 AM on February 8, 2005


I swear, it gets wearying having people endlessly put up straw man arguments, ....

It's a straw man if we mis-state your position and then claim to have defeated you when we knock down the scarecrow. I didn't see that here....

As for myself, I didn't really address your position at all. I merely argued -- in language perhaps a shade too flowery -- that there are two sides to "freedom", that we conflate them, that we shouldn't do that, and that etymology was as good a way as any to expose that fact.

After reading the later messages in the thread -- and I'm thinking about the libertarianista subthread, not the etymological subthread -- I now think I was wrong: Etymology is probably the only way to effectively open that door. Because without establishing clearly that there are different concepts at play, people will persist (and persist and persist) in conflating them. And the only way that I know of to make it clear that there are different concepts is to explain how the words that describe them came to be in the first place.
posted by lodurr at 6:43 AM on February 8, 2005


the only way that I know of to make it clear that there are different concepts is to explain how the words that describe them came to be in the first place

Then you should try harder. Because sometimes different concepts are expressed by words that have the same origin; sometimes, in fact, they're expressed by the same word (the verb to table is a notorious example). If etymology helps you explain a difference, fine -- as I say, it can be a useful mnemonic. If you're claiming it proves anything about contemporary meaning, you're barking up the wrong tree.
posted by languagehat at 7:32 AM on February 8, 2005


Languagehat, I never claimed it proved anything about contemporary meaning. (Now who's erectiing straw men?) I merely said that if you have two concepts which are commonly conflated, I don't know of a better way to explain the difference than to explain where the concepts come from.

Do you know of a better way to explain the difference between conflated concepts than by describing the origins of the concepts in human experience? Which is to say -- by giving examples?
posted by lodurr at 7:46 AM on February 8, 2005


Whoa, whoa, whoa -- "describing the origins of the concepts in human experience" is great, but it's not the same as etymology. I'm sorry if I was straw-manning you; it seems I misunderstood your point. Yes, your approach is fine -- it's just not the same as discussing the historical origin of the word itself.
posted by languagehat at 7:52 AM on February 8, 2005


La Hat, I hope it's clear that I'm aware you don't fully hold the extreme positions I so enjoy debating, and that the same holds for my own. Reasonable debate about these issues is rare, and so useful for clarifying my own thinking on them, that I can't resist casting us both into roles which may not fully represent the true subtleties of our feeling. I hope you enjoy these discussions as much as I do, and we can switch sides any time if you like.

My point is that, as enlightening and enjoyable as etymology is, it cannot be used to determine current meaning; my larger point is that you do not need to know any other languages in order to speak English correctly.

I'd say that while etymology doesn't (always and entirely) determine current meaning, it certainly can affect it - and more to the point, inform discussion about it and its relation to other subjects. And I'd argue that knowing other languages can surely deepen one's understanding of English - just look how many great writers in English aren't native speakers: Nabakov, Conrad, etc. But it's certainly not required, agreed.

you have to understand my frustration at constantly dealing with people who parrot silly rules and ideas they picked up behind the barn and refuse to listen to reason.

I think I do - I have the same frustration but from the other side of the spectrum. Perhaps my liberal california childhood is to blame, but I am so sick of crap populists telling me not to never use a "big word" if there's a "normal word" that's "almost the same"; whining that learning about the "classics" is just for Old White Men and of no interest to anyone interesting; and acting as though making an unusual reference or analysis in a conversation is automatically just onanism and grandstanding, rather than an opportunity to learn and explore. All of these things I'm sick of are valid points to a certain extent, but are carried through ad nauseum by dogmatic pedants.

So, I think we really agree more than not, but I find it perhaps more fruitful to pick at the areas where we may differ, because it forces me to re-evaluate and explain positions I may otherwise take for granted, and I learn a lot from your perspective. Like the Real Meaning of "bead" :)
posted by freebird at 10:41 AM on February 8, 2005


Ah, now I understand where you're coming from!

I hope you enjoy these discussions as much as I do, and we can switch sides any time if you like.

Absolutely -- in fact, I used to disconcert people in high school by abruptly switching positions if the discussion was getting too dull for me.
posted by languagehat at 11:41 AM on February 8, 2005


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