Yesterday, I watched my grandson Jacob try to get his way. I’ve forgotten the actual situation, but he kept using the word “just.” As I listened to him I realized how often I’d heard not only him, but others, use the word “just” in just the same way.
It could have been something like, “Jacob, it’s time to clean up.” — “I just want to play one more game.”
You’ve heard it: “Sally, please stop playing with your food.” — “But I was just trying to get the fat part out.”
Or, “Big brother, can I join your game?” — “Not right now. I just need to finish what I’m doing first.”
Or, “Stop hitting me!” — “I was just playing with you.”
Listening to Jacob use the word, I wondered about it, as it’s used in sentences like these, and I wondered if it was related to the word “just” as in “justice” – as in “Abraham Lincoln was a good and just man.”
Looking up the etymology on the internet, I found erudite discussion of the word’s origins in the French “juste,” and the latin “ius.” There was general agreement that all the many ways we use the word “just” are related. They all, in the end, go back to the idea of justice. But among all the cited examples – from several centuries of recorded usage in numerous languages – I saw not a mention of human nature, as I had witnessed it in my grandson: namely, how we use adjectives like “just” to “justify” ourselves. We see it in children all the time, when something they’ve done is challenged and they seek to defend themselves by minimizing the seriousness of it. To assert that they were “just” doing something is to say it was harmless – and, by implication, not deserving of disapproval.
An adult friend of mine often uses the concept generically, intentionally not finishing the sentence. He uses it when even a subtle, raised eyebrow suggests skepticism about something he’s just said. His usual response: “Just sayin’…”
The problem with self-justification is that it knows no natural bounds. It’s an elixir that never quite quenches the thirst. Sally’s assertion that she wasn’t playing with her food, she was just trying to separate the good stuff from the fatty part, is not only a minimization of any harm done, it’s the beginning of an argument that she was actually engaged in a worthwhile pursuit. “I was doing a good thing…” “I was just” doing what I was doing means, in effect, “I was justly” doing what I was doing.
One of my favorite meditations on word origins involves the meaning of a different word, the word “want.” Its original meaning, coming from old Norse, was the lack of something. We hear it used that way rarely these days, but the word is still occasionally seen in its former sense: “The old house was in want of repair.” “His manners were seriously wanting.” “For want of a better location, we had our picnic in a cemetery.”
From the meaning “lack” came the meaning “need,” since we sometimes see a need for what we lack. Only from that did the word come to mean “desire” – since we so often desire what we lack (whether we need it or not). Language doesn’t often change because some writer or linguist makes a conscious decision to change it. It changes gradually and unconsciously, as everyday people apply a familiar word in new situations – situations that carry context, connotation and stretch. As I see it, the more often people of the past said that they lacked something, the more often – human nature being what it is – there was a strong sense that they desired it. Their listeners naturally assumed that the reason they were saying they lacked it was because they desired it. I believe the close relationship between the concepts, as a matter of human psychology — the fact that people do so often desire what they lack — is what enabled the word’s meaning to slide from one into the other, so that today, where we can hope to obtain just about everything, we barely remember that “want” once meant “lack.” Every time I hear a grandchild, buried in a pile of accumulated toys, say he or she wants some new one, I’m apt to think how naturally we human beings no longer want what we have, but nearly always want what we lack.
So too with “just.” Originally meaning anything that was proper, correct, or exactly so (the “just law” or “It is impossible to say just what I mean” (T.S. Eliot)), the word came to be used to assert that something is just, even when it’s not – again because of natural human psychology. Just grows and stretches like an old sock, as we claim that more and more fits the description. It’s like the way the word “literally” is currently widened to include things that are not, in fact, literally true, like the person who says, “He literally killed me with one joke after another…”
The evolution of our words tells us a lot about the kind of people we are. Our use of just tells us how automatically we seek to justify ourselves. Our use of want informs us about our hard-wired cupidity. Our use of “literally” shows how much we use language to serve our own exaggerated goals.
Two of my five siblings had severe learning disabilities. My parents told me how blessed I was in comparison, that God had given me a good brain. The blessing, I was told, carried a heavy responsibility not to waste that talent; I might someday have to care for my less intelligent siblings. It was heady stuff for a little boy, and in retrospect, it started me on my way to being the arrogant man I became. Meanwhile, God had blessed the entire human race, giving us “dominion” over all the birds of the air and fish of the sea. After all, we were made in God’s image, while whales, dolphins and chimpanzees were not. As a species, we have souls, and with our souls and our superior intelligence, we have a moral obligation to those less fortunate than ourselves, do we not?
Perhaps obviously so. But the doctrine of Noblesse Oblige carries its own dangers, as “superior intelligence” or “superior morality” justify our making things go the way we think they ought to. Pope Nicholas V authorized the taking of pagan slaves by explaining his purpose to enable the enslaver to “bring the sheep entrusted to him by God into the single divine fold,” and to “acquire for them the reward of eternal felicity, and obtain pardon for their souls.” Noblesse oblige lay behind the court’s ruling in The United States v. La Jeune Eugenie, 26 F. Cases. 832 (D. Mass. 1822) that slavery benefited slaves by saving them from the savagery of their own religion. And it lay behind the words of Augustus B. Longstreet, a president of the University of Mississippi, when his moral obligation to take care of unfortunate heathen savages (Africans) caused him to complain to his son-in-law: “The creatures persistently refuse to live together as man and wife, even after I have mated them with all the wisdom I possess, and built them such desirable homes.”
It’s easy to see the blind wrongness in others when they think themselves wise. How common is that same blindness among the rest of us? How much do we risk when, with intellectual and moral superiority, we literally just want what we think best?
 Romanus Pontifex, 1454