WMBW’s tagline is “Fallibility>Humility>Civility.” It’s punctuated to suggest that one state of being should lead naturally to the next. The relationship between these three concepts being central to the idea, today I’ve accepted my brother’s suggestion to comment about the meaning of the words.
Etymology books tell us that “fallibility” comes from the Latin fallere, a transitive verb that meant to cause something to stumble. In the reflexive form, Cicero’s me fallit (“something caused me to stumble”) bestowed upon our concept of fallibility the useful idea that when one makes a mistake, it isn’t one’s own fault. As Flip Wilson used to say, “the devil made me do it.”
This is something I adore about language – the way we speak is instructive because it mirrors the way we think. Therefore, tracing the way language evolves, we can trace the logic (or illogic) of the way we have historically tended to think, and so we can learn something about ourselves. Applying that concept here leads me to conclude that denying personal responsibility for our mistakes goes back at least as far as Cicero, probably as far as the origins of language itself, and perhaps even farther. “I did not err,” our ancient ancestors taught their children to say; “something caused me to stumble.”
I also think it’s fun to examine the development of language to see how basic ideas multiply into related concepts, the way parents give rise to multiple siblings. And so, from the Latin fallere come the French faux pas and the English words false, fallacy, fault, and ultimately, failure and fail. While I’ve heard people admit that they were at fault when they stumbled, it’s far less common to hear anyone admit responsibility for complete failure. If someone does, her friends tell her not to be so hard on herself. His psychiatrist is liable to label him abnormal, perhaps pathologically so: depressed, perhaps, or at least lacking in healthy self-esteem. The accepted wisdom tells us that a healthier state of mind comes from placing blame elsewhere, rather than on oneself. Most interesting.
Humility, meanwhile, apparently began life in the Indo-European root khem, which spawned similar-sounding words in Hittite, Tokharian, and various other ancient languages. All such words meant the earth, the land, the soil, the ground – that which is lowly, one might say; the thing upon which all of us have been raised to tread. In Latin the Indo-European root meaning the ground underfoot became humus, and led to English words like exhume, meaning to remove from the ground. Not long thereafter, one imagines, the very ancient idea that human beings came from the ground (dust, clay, or whatever) or at least lived on it led to the Latin word homo, a derivative of humus, which essentially meant a creature of the ground (as opposed to those of the air or the sea). From there came the English words human and humanity. Our humanity, then, might be said to mean, ultimately, our very lowliness.
From the Latin, homo and humus give us two rather contrary sibling words. These siblings remain in a classic rivalry played out to this day in all manner of ways. On the one hand, homo and humus give us our word “humility,” the quality of being low to the ground. We express humility when we kneel before a lord or bow low to indicate subservience. In this light, humility might be said to be the very essence of humanity, since both embody our lowly, soiled, earth-bound natures But our human nature tempts us with the idea that it isn’t good to be so low to the ground. To humiliate someone else is to put them in their place (to wit, low to the ground, or at least, low compared to us.) And while we share with dogs and many other creatures of the land the habit of getting low to express submissiveness, some of our fellow creatures of the land go so far as to lay down and bare the undersides of their necks to show submission. Few of us are willing to demonstrate that degree of humility.)
And so the concept of being a creature of the ground underfoot gives rise to a sibling rivalry — there arises what might be called the “evil twin” of humility, and it is the scientific name by which we distinguish ourselves from other land-based creatures: the perception that we are the best and wisest of them gives rise to homo sapiens, the wise land-creature. As I’ve pointed out in an earlier blog, even that accolade wasn’t enough to satisfy us for long: now our scientists have bestowed upon us the name homo sapiens sapiens, or the doubly wise creatures of the earth. I find much that seems telling in the tension between our humble origins and our self-congratulatory honorific. As for the current state of the rivalry, I would merely point out that not one of our fellow creatures of the land, as far as I know, have ever called us wise. It may be only us who think us so.
And now, I turn to “civility.” Eric Partridge, my favorite etymologist, traces the word back to an Indo-European root kei, meaning to lie down. In various early languages, that common root came to mean the place where one lies down, or one’s home. (Partridge asserts that the English word “home” itself ultimately comes from the same root.) Meanwhile, Partridge tells us, the Indo-European kei morphed into the Sanskrit word siva, meaning friendly. (It shouldn’t be hard to imagine how the concepts of home and friendliness were early associated, especially given the relationship between friendliness and propagation.) In Latin, a language which evolved in one of the ancient world’s most concentrated population centers, the root kei became the root ciu- seen in such words as ciuis, (a citizen, or person in relation to his neighbors), and ciuitas (a city-state, an aggregation of citizens, the quality of being in such an inherently friendly relationship to others). By the time we get to English, such words as citizen, citadel, city, civics and civilization, and of course civility itself, all owe their basic meaning to the idea of getting along well with those with whom we share a home.
In the olden days, when one’s home might have been a tent on the Savannah, or a group of villagers occupying one bank of the river, civility was important to producing harmony and cooperation among those who laid down to sleep together. Such cooperation was important for families to work together and survive. But as families became villages, villages became cities, and city-states became larger civilizations, we have been expanding the reach of people who sleep together. (And I mean literally – my Florida-born son, my Japanese-born daughter-in-law, and my grandson, Ryu, who even as I write is flying back from Japan to Florida, remind me of that fact daily.) Our family has spread beyond the riverbank to the globe.
Given the meanings of all these words, I would ask how far our modern sense of “home” and “family” extend? What does it mean, these days, to be “civilized”? What does it mean, oh doubly-wise creatures of the earth, to be “humane”? And in the final analysis, what will it take to “fail”?