Sunday, September 21, 2008

Evolution of Meaning and Two Flip-Flops

The study of history is partly a study of words –or the definitions of words. Over time there have been switches in meanings.  The word ‘revolution’ for example: most people think of it as a violent change, or the overthrow of an existing political order. Unfortunately, I cannot verify my source. I think it was Professor Martin Griffin from my English History course, freshman year. As Dean of Saybrook College, however, he died of a heart attack, while crossing one of the courtyards in the snow. For my 40th birthday, Dennis and I went to a Yale Alumni Seminar at the R.L. Stevenson School at Pebble Beach, and Yale Professor John Boswell (since then a victim of AIDS) said that my recollection about the word ‘revolution’ could not be right. He contended the word was derived from ‘revolt.’


Unless I reached the conclusion myself, I think I recall Martin Griffin’s mentioning that the word ‘revolution’ was first used in a political sense during the so-called “Glorious Revolution” of 1688. That was when Parliament kicked out the King, James II, and replaced him with his daughter Mary, the wife of William of Orange. The legal argument was that the King had violated the terms of the Restoration of the Monarchy, and that Parliament was merely restoring the situation to an already agreed upon compact. In other words, it was not a violent overthrow, instead, it was a righting the ship of state—or a seasonal correction. Martin’s point was that the word was borrowed from astronomy, and when you have a complete revolution of a moon or a planet, you end up exactly where you started.


When the American colonies sought independence from England, it was the colonials who called it a ‘revolution.’ The English called it a ‘rebellion.’ Clearly the word had a positive meaning to its adherents, and was a reflection of the political writings after 1688. The revolutionaries claimed that it was the King who had violated the compact. Read Mr. Jefferson’s Declaration (though I would contend that most of the charges against George III would not hold up in a fair court of law.)


The meaning of the word changed drastically, when the French adopted it for their own political upheaval, which then became very violent and bloody. Ever since, that’s what people think of as a political revolution.


Or take the word ‘comfort.’ Is it a hard word or a soft word? Most people contend that it’s a soft word—to comfort, as to console. But think of the King James version of the 23rd Psalm. “…Thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.” That’s a closer example of the intended meaning. It’s originally from the French: com-fort, or, with strength. The Bayeaux tapestry shows Duke William comforting his troops, at the point of a sword. He is encouraging them— prodding them— as a shepherd does his sheep.


So when people today say it’s important to stretch yourself, to get out of your 'comfort zone,' that’s exactly what the original meaning intended.


I suppose, if you were being attacked by Vikings, and were protected in a castle keep, you might feel consoled by being protected – but that comfort comes from strength. 

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Titian in the Frari (Venezia)