On being conceited, arrogant, proud and vain.

A friend accused me of being conceited.

I won’t deny it. Actually I can’t deny it because I’m not sure what it means.

People use conceited to mean arrogant and self-absorbed.

By that definition I am indeed conceited.

But I know for a fact that a conceit is also a literary device – an extended metaphor, often whimsical or hyperbolic.

I also know that a conceit is an idea formed in the mind, a notion, such that someone in a nineteenth century novel might say “I have this conceit about…” in the same way that we would say “I have an idea about…”

Conceit, conceive, concept, they are all related.

So how did conceit end up describing arrogance?

The missing link appears to be the self. Self-conceit was eventually shortened to conceit, and self-conceited to simply conceited.

A self-conceited person has conceits about himself. He’s formed hyperbolic and fanciful notions of his own qualities.


Arrogance comes from the Latin arrogare meaning “to claim for oneself, assume”.

We tend to think of arrogance and conceit as basically the same, but the etymology shows that they describe slightly different characteristics.

An arrogant person is too quick to ask for things, too presumptuous, too keen to claim privileges and benefits for themselves.

Where self-conceit implies an inward-looking vanity, arrogance implies an overbearing relation to others.


I’ve been writing about pride a lot lately and giving very specific religious definitions. But what about the etymology?

Pride, or rather proud is an interesting one.

It comes from the Old French for brave or valiant, without the negative connotations it carries today.

One theory is that the negative connotations of arrogance and haughtiness were attributed to the word as it entered the English language – reflecting the English disdain for their French rulers.


Vanity of vanities, all is vanity. Which doesn’t make much sense if we’re talking about narcissistic obsession with one’s appearance or self-image.

But that’s not what vain originally meant.

Vain means “empty”, from the Latin vanus meaning….empty.

Vain could be used to describe any enterprise or quality that lacked substance and true merit: vain efforts, vain struggle, vain wealth, vain self-regard.

We often describe people as vain, but originally it would have been their actions.

What use is it to tell people they have a high opinion of themselves?

You’re so vain, I bet you think this post is about you. 

Vanity is a more powerful accusation than that – it shows up the futility and emptiness of our self-conceit and pride. That’s where it is truly cutting.

Quid est Veritas?

More from Sertillanges:

Is it not natural…that the man of vocation should put away and deliberately forget his everyday man; that he should throw off everything of him: his frivolity, his irresponsibility, his shrinking from work, his material ambitions, his proud or sensual desires, the instability of his will or the disordered impatience of his longings, his over-readiness to please and his antipathies, his acrimonious moods and his acceptance of current standards, the whole complicated entanglement of impediments which block the road to the True and hinder its victorious conquest?

I was going to continue on from the previous post’s conclusion, but it struck me as I transcribed Sertillanges’ text that he capitalised ‘True’, and yet of course he was writing in French and would have used vérité.

Why does this matter?

Well the etymology of ‘true’ implies ‘steadfast, solid, firm’, whereas the etymology of vérité appears to imply instead a compact or a bond, a relational basis of trust.  This might be splitting hairs, but the Greek term used in philosophy and apparently in the Gospel is alethea, which has in turn a third implication of being ‘unhidden’ or disclosed.

I have a tentative theory that these kinds of etymological peculiarities are significant even if we do not fully understand them explicitly or in everyday language.

That is: there are subtle differences between truth, vérité, and alethea, which alter how we conceive of the object behind the word.

What is truth like? Is it like a solid, firm, steadfast object, or a deep and trustworthy bond, or is it a disclosure, a remembering, something entirely unhidden?

When Christ says “God is a Spirit: and they that worship him must worship him in spirit and in truth” I think it does make a difference to understand truth as alethea.

These different etymologies all point to the same thing, and the differences are minor. Still, I think the weight of English leaves us with a sense of ‘the truth’ as something solid, untarnished, but very much an object out there in the world, waiting to be discovered.

For me alethea denotes something more immanent, a state of knowing and of recognition yet to be attained. It is, after all, a supposedly a negative, with the prefix a- making it not concealed, not hidden. Truth is something we dis-cover, and it therefore implies also an element of subjectivity…not relativity, but the existence of a knowing subject to whom the reality is no longer concealed.




My passive self

A sociology PhD candidate and fellow blogger whom I follow has written a couple of posts on the definition of ‘passion’ and its contemporary significance.

The etymology of passion is one of my favourite examples of how our culture has lost or forgotten its ancient bearings. We generally encounter passion as ‘excitement’ or ‘enthusiasm’ or strong emotion. Only in the arcane religious context of “the passion of the Christ” do we catch a glimpse of the full context of the original word.

In brief, the strands of Greek philosophy that were retained through Christendom and thereby shaped the modern world observed a dichotomy of activity and passivity in things. To use a rough example: when fire heats water, the fire is active and the water is passive. That is, the fire causes change while the water undergoes change. Heating is, in this sense, an action of fire and a passion of water.

In a human context, passions are what we now tend to call emotions, yet the word ’emotion’ is comparatively recent and carries the original meaning of ‘stir up’. By contrast, passion originally meant ‘to suffer’, yet suffering in turn does not refer only to painful or harmful changes, but to changes generally, or rather to things ‘undergone’.

Our emotions are changes wrought in us by external circumstances, objects, and considerations, as well as our own thoughts and ideas about such considerations. We are ‘passive’ in regard to our emotions insofar as they are changes ‘undergone’ by us.

In contemporary language people say things like “I’m passionate about the environment” to signify that they care enough about such issues as to undergo emotional changes in response to them. The original meaning of passivity is implicit here. But the meaning is entirely lost when the language shifts and people say things like “I guess the environment is my biggest passion”.

Does the original meaning matter? Apart from being able to understand that “the passion of the Christ” refers to his suffering and undergoing change rather than Christ being really enthusiastic about dying on a cross, there are also aspects of ancient anthropology or psychology that have informed our present civilisation and still make sense if we take the time to unravel the knots and tangles that our culture has made of them.

For example, various schools of Greek philosophy valued reason to such an extent that it took on divine or transcendent qualities. Yet, like the classical theistic understanding of God, reason is not passive.  Reason does not undergo change through the influence of other entities or forces. Understanding both reason and/or God as perfect, as beyond change or growth or the fulfillment of potential, this perfection is in some sense available to humanity insofar as we can embody reason in our own souls.

Yet as experience attests, our adherence to reason is challenged most significantly by the passions and the power they exert over us.  Depending on the particular philosophy, humans were viewed as enslaved by the passions through the lower appetite, or enslaved by the passions through the influence of false and irrational beliefs. A rational and virtuous man is not controlled by external objects, and not susceptible to the demands of his passionate nature.

In this sense, the passion of the Christ is significant not because a God-man went through some painful experiences, but because it is (or should be) metaphysically impossible for God to suffer in the first place.  This is, I think, a good example of how even a middling knowledge of metaphysics underscores the significance of Christian doctrine in a classical theistic context.

Or to put it another way:

“ the humble is the stem upon which the mighty grows, the low is the foundation upon which the high is laid.”





The rectification of names

Replying to another of Matthew’s comments, I thought it worth making a new post to draw attention to a significant theme in Confucian thought.

If I may channel my inner Confucian: what bothers me about the phenomenon of Yoga drifting from its ancient roots is not a disdain for “cherry picking” nor a direct concern for the spiritual well-being of Western pseudo-yogis, but an appreciation for what Confucius called ‘the rectification of names’.

A superior man, in regard to what he does not know, shows a cautious reserve. If names be not correct, language is not in accordance with the truth of things. If language be not in accordance with the truth of things, affairs cannot be carried on to success. When affairs cannot be carried on to success, proprieties and music do not flourish. When proprieties and music do not flourish, punishments will not be properly awarded. When punishments are not properly awarded, the people do not know how to move hand or foot. Therefore a superior man considers it necessary that the names he uses may be spoken appropriately, and also that what he speaks may be carried out appropriately. What the superior man requires is just that in his words there may be nothing incorrect.

When someone says “Yoga”, but what they refer to is not actually Yoga, then we have the beginnings of ignorance and confusion. Defining our terms is vital from a philosophical perspective, and relying on incorrect terms or misappropriated terms is simply wrong; why do it if you don’t have to?

But the truth is that I enjoy looking at the meanings, natures, and definitions of things, as well as the origins and use of words.  I don’t really care if no one else thinks it important or relevant or worth the time and effort.


I’m fine; like ‘fine art’ fine.

I often use the expression “I’m fine” or “that’ll be fine” to mean “I’m ok”, “no worries” etc.

But today it struck me, while reading a comment on my latest article, that ‘fine’ has been devalued in many contexts from “pure, unblemished, perfect, complete” down to merely “satisfactory, acceptable”.

Its etymology is in Old French ‘fin’ as in ‘finished’ but with the positive sense of perfection, acme, or end. Fine art, fine wine, a fine thread; they all connote quality, ‘finish’ in the most creative sense – the same sense that gives us a finish in the sense of a veneer or lacquer, the finishing touches.

Fine is therefore suggestive of a teleology or purpose, a direction, not a merely arbitrary ending but a meaningful one, completion in accordance with a goal or plan, the complete instantiation of the essence of a thing.

To be fine is therefore a wonderful state to inhabit. I hope I can achieve it one day!

In the meantime I need to find an alternative way of saying “I’m sufficiently good, thankyou.”

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.

I can’t handle being useful

My latest piece at MercatorNet.com brings together my love of etymology and my deep, seething contempt for the language and culture of management:

Once we start giving people names and titles that reflect what they really do, it will no longer be possible to hide behind pomp and presentation. It’s one thing to say “I’m the manager of this team” and quite another to say “I handle these people”. The latter lacks pretence. It is a statement of action, and it has implications and repercussions that the softer title of ‘manager’ avoids. It’s the same rationale that led North Korean dictator Kim Jong-Il to style himself “Dear Leader, who is a perfect incarnation of the appearance that a leader should have”.