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Ask a linguist - Message details

Subject: etymology of ''selfish''
The OED says the origin of the word ''selfish'' begins in 1640 when a
Presbyterian archbishop coigned the phrase from ''his own mint''; the word
apparently has ''reference to the events in 1640.'' Strangely, the
word ''selfish'' does not occur at all in the Bible, nor do any synonym to
the word, yet modern Christianity is laden with ethics against
selfishness. Presumably people before the 17th century acted in selfish
ways, so why, then, was this word absent from their vocabulary? I asked a
friend who knows Greek and Hebrew whether the word appears in either of
those languages, and he said it did not. Let me quote him:

''To my knowledge, there is no Greek or Hebrew word that is exactly
equivalent to ''selfish.'' Hebrew could speak of self love (1 Samuel 20:17),
but it doesn't seem to have had a word comparable to the reflexive word
that we have in ''self,'' so it would be difficult to have the corresponding
word ''selfish.'' For example, in Exodus 21:3 the English reads, ''he shall go
out by himself,'' but the text literally says, ''he will go out with his
body.'' The word for ''bone'' could also be used to refer to the self, as in 2
Kings 9:13 (where the KJV has ''him''). There are various ways of expressing
the idea that we translate as self in the Old Testament, but each case that
I can find uses a word for the body: body, bone, flesh, etc. That is a very
different sense of what it means to be a self than we have in English. (I
think it is also important when we think about what a Hebrew conception of
God's selfhood would have been.)

''Greek, of course, has the word ''autos'' for ''self,'' and that word seems to
correspond much much closely to our notion of self. Nevertheless, Greek
doesn't seem to have a word for ''selfish.'' (Of course, I am only a dabbler
in either language. It is quite possible that someone else will point out
that I've overlooked something obvious.) Asuming that I'm right, I wonder
if this difference between Greek and Hebrew is a difference between Semitic
and Indo-European languages?

''Since it is obvious that there were what we would describe as selfish
behaviors prior to the 17th century and that those behaviors were generally
condemned, it is interesting that we didn't have a particular word for that
kind of behavior until then. Why not? A stab at an answer: Perhaps we
didn't have a word for selfishness until the self and the kind of
reflexivity and centrality of the self that characterizes modernism began
to be important conceptually.''

My friend is a theologian and a philosopher, not a linguist. I'd like to
know the full and complete etymology of this word, if possible. Do you
really think that that modernism's focus on the self is what was
responsible for the creation of the new word, selfishness? Is this similar
to that cliche about the eskimo's creation of many words for ''snow'' because
of their snow-centered culture?

So far as the etymology is concerned, it sounds as though the OED has
already given it to you. It seems to me that there are really two
separate questions here; whether English before the 17c (or other languages,
before or since) had an expression meaning what we nowadays mean by
"selfish", and secondly, whether such a word in any language is formed from
a root meaning "self". The answer to the first question might be yes,
but the word in question might happen to be formed from some quite different
root. (If we hadn't got the word "selfish" and I was asked to coin a
term for this idea, I'm not sure it would occur to me to use "self" as the
basis for a neologism!)

Clearly, pre-17c English had related concepts, expressed by unrelated words.
Of the seven deadly sins, very familiar to Mediaevals, both "avarice" and
"pride" have a lot in common with selfishness -- but they are not identical,
of course. The only way I could go about trying to find some nearer
equivalent in mediaeval English would be to look up near-synonyms for
"selfish" in Roget's Thesaurus and check the history of those words, to see
how close they were to our concept of selfishness. Presumably in the
17c no English word expressed _exactly_ the same meaning, or the archbishop
you mention would not have needed to coin the new word.

By the way (as I'm sure many other Ask-a-Linguist panelists will have pointed
out) it is not actually true that the Eskimos have an unusually diverse
vocabulary for snow! This is an "urban myth".

G.R. Sampson, Professor of Natural Language Computing

School of Cognitive & Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Falmer, Brighton BN1 9QH, GB

e-mail [email protected]
tel. +44 1273 678525
fax +44 1273 671320

Reply From: Geoffrey Sampson     click here to access email
Date: Feb-21-2001
Other Replies:
  1. Re: etymology of "selfish"   Robert Papen    (Feb-21-2001)
  2. Re: etymology of "selfish"   charlie rowe    (Feb-20-2001)

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