2166. Key words in economics – histories

Keywords in economics.
Doug Carmichael doug@dougcarmichael.com

Key words have histories. In economics, concepts and their words are treated like Lego blocks: fixed shape and content. But if we are thinking about changes in future economics, being aware that the things we are dealing with have been fluid over time is helpful to rethinking now. There are a number of interesting words I have listed at https://carmichaelconversation.com/key-words/

You can find more at https://www.etymonline.com , and The Oxford English Dictionary, sources always immediately available and unused.

Here are a few words that have the most importance for understanding where we have come from in economics.

Economics itself as is widely known contains two parts, eco and nomos. Eco is normally translated as household, but in its use by Plato and Aristotle and others it meant estate, because the cattle ranch (think of Osysseus’s home) was the form of home ownership among the greeks. Nomos, meaning man made law, procedure rules, norms, even method. But in earlier greek in the form nomoia, it meant equal distribution. A law is not created unless there is a need, which, in this case implies there was a general tendency toward unequal distribution to which nomia was the reaction. Its early use seems to have a history something like: cattle were grazed on open land and, as those cows in the herd became identified with a person in something like ownerships, but the grassland was open until increasing population in cattle and people led to conflict and it was decided to measure out the grassland in equal portions. Of course as we know each acre is not equivalent in value – water, enarnedd to buildings, soil – so that equal distribution of land gave way to more complex forms of trying to maintain equality.

The Greeks being the inquisitive type, saw that a well managed estate would produce a surplus, and their question was, for what purpose should we have a surplus? For leisure time for the discussion of philosophy and politics. Leisure here meant something not like blissful consumerism, but use in study and talk which, for the Greeks, were key aspects of social life.

When Rome became central in The mediteranean, this meaning of surplus mitigated in to the empire, and when that gave way to christianity, the word economy went with it. The idea was that the land was god’s estate to be managed by people for the good of their own development, and surplus was the basis for time for prayer, meditation, art. The monasteries became the form that took. We are not aware that the word econmoia is used throughout the new testament because western historians read the bible, not in original Greekm but in Latin, and Cicero, doing the translation replaced economics with distribution, with throwback to the old nomia,losing the sense of history and its implications. It is a shock to economists now to learn that economy is even in the new testament. * see Agamben, The Kingdom and the Glory: For a Theological Genealogy of Economy and Government

Capital is the evolved meaning from the word in Latin for cattle, cap, head, as in the still used head of cattle, Early estates and empired were highly dependent on cattle, from hunter-gatherers to herdsmen to enclosed pasture land, beef was central to diet. See Against the Grain by James C. Scott) . When Odysseus landed, many cattle were “sacrificed: and fed the soldiers and crews. The idea of sacrifice maintained the culture of the hunter gatherers where the kill ws shared. (this is the kind of complex evolution we might anticipate for the future). Apparently Athens at the time of Plato had a herd of 100,000 cattle used for sacrifice – a Greek seeking religious connection would come from the countryside , contribute money to a priest for a sacrifice which then fed the population. Obviously this had to be extensive, but these were not vegetarians. (see Mcinerny, Jeremy Cattle of the Sun)

Private property. The powerful word property started out as proper as a sign in society of a person’s status, as in the still widely used, “Are you dressed properly for the meeting?” and the more action oriented “act properly” (to show your breeding, your class position. act properly.) What was a sign of status in a community of signs morphed into something that could be owned – a thing – and marketable. An amazing transformation we should experience the logic of as we think about the future. Much of the motive for property is still as s asocial sign, “my island, bmw, Tesla, house on the hill, is larger than those of others. And we have :trophy spouse”.

Private is even more complex. It comes from Latin privato, to remove from the public. The Etymological Dictionary online has

“The original Latin meant “remove from the pub;ic”. (From Latin prīvātus (“bereaved; set apart from”), perfect passive participle of prīvō (“I bereave, deprive”), from prīvus (“single, peculiar”). That is, death from the group. What is private is a death and the state bereaved. “

This is stunning and implies a whole critique of the individual in relation to the community.

The histories of these words contain implications for understanding their present use. But more importantly, contain hints at future use, which it is our task to develop.

(this is an excerpt from the draft book, Gardenworld Politics, draft chapters at draft


View at Medium.com


View at Medium.com


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 )

Facebook photo

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

Connecting to %s