Excerpt: 'Don't Vote It Just Encourages the Bastards,' By P.J. O'Rourke

Several of these may seem beside the point. But "frank," for instance, is from the Old French franc, meaning free. We can be frank with the president of the United States. We can honestly and openly say what we think to him. And what we think of him. But in all our name-calling the name we call our president that sticks is "Mr." He's not "Your Excellency" or "Your Highness," nor do we kowtow, genuflect, or curtsy to him. Callisthenes, the great-nephew of Aristotle, plotted to kill Alexander the Great rather than prostrate himself in the Persian manner to the conqueror of the known world. It's probably just as well that our current president forgoes even a handshake with Fox News.

Then there are the freedoms of leisure, laxity, and wild abandon. Anyone who thinks these have nothing to do with democracy hasn't met the demos. Also, it was not so long ago, during the great political demonstrations of the 1960s, that I was risking my neck -- well, risking a conk on the head and a snootful of tear gas -- in the battle to create a utopian society where I could lie around all day, utterly heedless and high as a kite.

Freedom, of course, may be considered as an abstraction. I was young enough to be highly abstracted -- not to say stoned -- when I began to think about freedom. But I wasn't old enough to think. Therefore I can tell you nothing about my abstract thinking on the subject. And so can't a lot of other people, because there are languages in which the word "freedom" doesn't exist. (Not surprising if you think about some of the places languages are spoken.) Richard Pipes, emeritus professor of Russian history at Harvard, who is fluent in a number of tongues himself, makes this point in his book Property and Freedom (a perspicacious analysis of what the title says).

Professor Pipes cites the work of M. I. Finley, preeminent historian of classical antiquity (and, incidentally, a Marxist, something Richard Pipes is the opposite of ). Finley wrote, "It is impossible to translate the word 'freedom,' eleutheris in Greek, libertas in Latin, or 'free man,' into any ancient Near Eastern language, including Hebrew, or into any Far Eastern language either, for that matter." Indeed, when the Japanese first encountered Western notions they were hard put to translate "freedom" and ended up using the word jiyu, which means something like "getting jiggy with it."

Freedom and liberty themselves don't have quite the same meaning. "Free" is derived from the Indo-European root pri, to love. The p becomes f in Germanic languages, thus fri in Old German and freo in Old English. The original sense of the adjective was "dear," and it was used to describe those members of a household who had a kinship relation to the master of the house. Since at least the reign of King Alfred the Great, ruled 871-899, the primary definition of "free" has been "not in bondage." You're free because ... Who loves ya, Baby?

Liberty is probably the better word;(1) its source is in the Indo-European leudh, "to mount up, grow." Hence Latin for children, liberi, and German for populace, Leute. We the people make leudh into eleutheris and libertas.

Yet, the first definition of "liberty" in English is, once again, "exemption or release from bondage." Whatever we mean by our abstract statements about freedom and liberty, the most meaningful thing we're stating is that mankind has a sickening history of slavery.

Join the Discussion
blog comments powered by Disqus
You Might Also Like...