Monday, September 14, 2009

An Addendum to ‘Seduction’

Anatomy of a Time Sink
Gawd I love! And I really don’t know why that is, as I never really was all that hot about English classes in high school (although I did take a Semantics course that I really dug my senior year), but as an adult, etymology has always been a real fascination for me.

Likewise, I’ve never taken a foreign language course, let alone Latin, but one of my most oft-used browser bookmarks is to Merriam-Webster Online. I constantly cruise this extensive online dictionary site for help with word definition, usage, punctuation, and root origin information.

I’m one of those types who would list the dictionary as one of my all-time favorite reads. I’m serious; I could lose myself in a dictionary for hours. I’m fascinated by words. And I’m also fascinated by etymology; the history of words. I find it extremely interesting to find out where words came from, what their roots mean, and how their definitions and connotations have changed over the ages.

The English language, being the amalgam of so many others that it is, makes for a particularly interesting investigation of how our words were formed and developed.

But back to seduction…

So there I was, last Thursday, reading Liz Strauss’s post, when she mentioned the part about getting seduced by an idea. And then, for some reason, a context alarm went off in my head. I thought about the word ‘seduced,’ and for me, the first thought I had was ‘sexual,’ because in our culture, for the most part, sexual seduction is the context through which we perceive that word.

But that just didn’t seem right to me in this case. I fully identified with Liz’s use of the word in her statement. She definitely used the right descriptor. But when I’m ‘seduced’ by an idea; when I’m led away from one idea by a different one, it’s not because I’m thinkin’ sexy thoughts. Where did the sexual context actually come from? I needed to learn more to understand the true meaning of the word.

So first I checked Merriam-Webster, and then, where I discovered some interesting things about the word seduce.

When placed in a historical context, the interestingly subtle change in the word’s meaning makes for an even more poignant object lesson in human nature.

And for the record, I don’t pretend to be any kind of learned linguist.** This is just a loose interpretation, but one that makes a lot of sense to me.

**For entertainment purposes only; your mileage may vary.

I learned that the moral and sexual applications of the word, seduce (i.e.: seductive/seductress), manifested themselves about 50 years into its first attributed origin of use, in the early-middle portion of the sixteenth century. It was only at this point that its connotation gave rise to the prevailing modern interpretation of the idea of seduction being ‘immoral’ or ‘sexual’ in nature. Quite to the contrary, in its original Latin root components, the word is much more neutral in its moral stance.

The original usage context of seduce was, “to persuade a vassal (a feudal servant or slave), etc., to desert his allegiance or service.” In other words, seduce simply describes the act of leading a feudal slave away from his duty. It does not necessarily insinuate the act to be evil or immoral.

Seduce’s Latin root word, seducere simply means “lead away, or lead astray;” formed by the component parts, se — “aside, away” + ducere — “to lead.”

I don’t know about you, but I certainly don’t see any moral judgment there, but I guess it just depends on your point of view.

It’s interesting to note that according to most historical accounts, the early 1500s were the beginning of the end of the feudal system in Europe.

Oh the times, they were a-changin.’

The Middle Ages were over and so was the status quo (seein’ as how we seem to be on this Latin kick). The old guard obviously wasn't too terribly jazzed about this brave new world and its gradual disintegration of the feudal system.

Just as the abolition of slavery in the United States was met with extreme resistance from the establishment that had previously profited from it, the feudal kings and land barons who depended on those vassals to make their land productive couldn’t have been too happy when their way of life began to come to an end.

Again, this is just speculation on my part, but I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to assume that things worked much the same way then as they do now, with the noble and powerful, exerting control over opinion and most likely, language as well.

Is it therefore any less likely that a word, whose original meaning was purely descriptive, and without pejorative connotation, could be ‘turned’ by an establishment that disagreed with its action, than one of modern vintage, such as the word, ‘gay,’ whose ‘recent’ connotation over the past 100 years as a slang descriptor for homosexuality, has forever overshadowed its original meaning and primary usage from the previous six centuries?

It’s an interesting thing to consider, and one that I’m quite sure, if properly fleshed out, could very likely be a common theme in the evolution of our language.

Time sink concluded, now back to the series…

Next: The Difference Between ‘Alone’ and ‘Lonely’
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