What does it mean to be rich?

I love using etymology to inform my philosophy as I ask and answer questions like: what does it mean to be rich?

Full credit for all etymological resources to the magnificent website etymonline.com

Rich comes from Old English rice “strong, powerful; great, mighty; of high rank,” in later Old English “wealthy,” and was influenced in Middle English by Old French riche “wealthy, magnificent, sumptuous”.

So the high-ranking elites in Old English society were powerful and mighty and also wealthy. What we think of as rich most directly links to the wealthy component.

So what is wealthy?

Wealthy is the adjectival form of wealth, which means “happiness,” also “prosperity in abundance of possessions or riches,” from Middle English wele “well-being” (see weal(n.1)) on analogy of health.

Now we have a bunch of new words to track down:

Happiness, prosperity, weal, and abundance of possessions and riches.

Starting with riches, which, you might have guessed, is a bit of a dead end since it takes us back to rich.

In fact riches means “valued possessions, money, property,” c. 1200, modified from richesse (12c.), a singular form misunderstood as a plural, from Old French richesse, richece “wealth, opulence, splendor, magnificence,” from riche (see rich(adj.)).

What about possessions? Possessions are things that you have or hold, believed to stem from a root word that means “having power, able”.

Abundance means “copious quantity or supply,” mid-14c., from Old French abondance and directly from Latin abundantia “fullness, plenty,” abstract noun from abundant-, past participle stem of abundans “overflowing, full,” present participle of abundare “to overflow” (see abound).

So abundance of possessions and riches basically means having or holding so many things, especially the kinds of nice things high-ranking people have, that they are metaphorically overflowing.

But that’s not necessarily what we mean when we say “I want to be rich”. There’s more nuance needed, though in some respect it can simply mean “I want to be like one of those high-ranking elites!”

Let’s keep going.

Weal isn’t used much these days. It means “well-being,” from Old English wela “wealth,” in late Old English also “welfare, well-being,” from West Germanic *welon-, from PIE root *wel- (2) “to wish, will” (see will (v.)).

Will means “to wish, desire; be willing; be used to; be about to”. A fascinating word that predates our contemporary notion of free will, and appears to combine intentionality (he wills it) with behavioural commentary (he will do it).

What makes it even more fascinating is that well as in well-being comes from the same root as will.

Well means “in a satisfactory manner,” which makes sense if we take satisfactory to mean as desired or as willed.

Well is satisfactory because it matches what I will. And well-being therefore means being as I will.

So let’s add weal, meaning “being as I will” to our understanding of wealth. Wealth doesn’t just mean having so many things that they are metaphorically overflowing. It also means things being as you will or desire them to be.

Let’s keep going.

Prosperity is traditionally regarded as from Old Latin pro spere “according to expectation, according to one’s hope,” from pro “for” + ablative of spes “hope,” which sounds a lot like things being as one wills.

Finally, happiness, from happy means lucky, favored by fortune, being in advantageous circumstances, prosperous;” of events, “turning out well,” from hap (n.) “chance, fortune”.

Etymonline notes that: From Greek to Irish, a great majority of the European words for “happy” at first meant “lucky.”

And just for the sake of completeness, hap was a purely positive conception of luck. “chance, a person’s luck, fortune, fate;”.

So going back to where we started, Rich referred to a class of people who, amongst other things, were wealthy.

Wealth turned out to refer to a number of concepts, most predominantly the idea of things being according to one’s will.

Happiness has come to mean the emotion once associated with being favoured by fortune.

And abundance of possessions clarifies the overflowing of material things, presumably desirable things, which most people associate with wealth anyway.

If I had to summarise, I would say that the underlying historically-informed meaning of wealth is about the fulfilment of desires, which for most people includes material possessions and is commonly believed to rely on fortune or good luck.

I would argue that the word rich retains additional implications apart from wealth that touch on things like status and power. Perhaps that’s why we have the phrase rich and famous but not wealthy and famous.

Crazy wealthy Asians doesn’t have quite the same ring to it.

4 thoughts on “What does it mean to be rich?

  1. You had to bring Asians into it.
    ‘Rich’ can be sinicised as ‘Lish’, which approximates 利息/Lìxí/Interest (income). The Japanese pronunciation ‘rishi’ is closer. Other positive meanings for ‘Li’ include force/力 and enthrone/立.
    My point? The popularity of ‘rich’ may not simply be due to its resonance with anglophones.

    • At least I didn’t wait 14 days before bringing Asians into it! 😷
      As an historical if not actual coloniser I see these examples as further confirmation of the influence of “high-ranking” or high-status individuals and power structures 🎩

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s