Decisions and choices

In addition to being a bit of a philosophical quietist, I’ve also adapted an approach to language that appears somewhat idiosyncratic yet is, like everything about me, intensely interesting and inestimably valuable.

I haven’t had a chance to develop the theory formally, but in essence: I believe we can use etymology to identify the reality underlying the words we use, and thereby clarify and sharpen our thinking.

I suspect that in many cases the original meaning of words and their complex inter-relationships remains intact despite our ignorance of them.

In other words, our language contains more knowledge than we can consciously convey, and by reducing our terms to a reality-based definition we can eliminate most of the confusion and ignorance in our own minds.

Take for example the words decision and choice. What is the difference between a decision and a choice? The two appear more or less synonymous, yet they carry the subtle implication of different emphases.

Does a decision seem a little weightier, harder, heavier than a choice?

Already we may sense that the words have slightly different meanings: ‘choice’ can refer as much to the act of choosing as to the various alternatives from which we choose, whereas ‘decision’ is typically singular: we make a single decision amidst a range of options.

Perhaps we also recognise on some subconscious level the heaviness of the word ‘decision’. Do we sense the deeper meaning implied by its cousins incision, excision, precision, and concision?

All of them derive from the suffix -cide from the Latin “to strike down, chop, beat, hew, fell, slay”. It’s the same root in homicide, suicide, and regicide.

Incision cuts in, excision cuts out, precision cuts short, concision cuts up, and decision cuts off as in cutting off possibilities and alternatives.

Choice, by contrast, from ‘choose’ and the Old English ceosan originally means ‘taste’, ‘test’ or ‘relish’. It’s a subtly different meaning from the harshness of cutting off options, and perhaps suggests more of a positive preference rather than a definitive conclusion.

Is this difference reflected in contemporary use? Is it more romantic to tell your wife you chose her, or that you decided to marry her? At other times, say picking a meal from a menu, it seems to make little difference whether we are ‘still choosing’ or ‘still deciding’. But there is definitely a contrast between a person who is ‘choosy’ and one who is ‘decisive’.

English is overflowing with these points of etymological interest. I can, and maybe will, go on about them for a while. Nothing incides complex and convoluted argument like finding the cold hard reality behind the words. Nothing cuts through obfuscation and verbal trickery better than the reduction of language to its final constituent parts.

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