Sunday, September 14, 2008



I hate jargon for the same reason I love dictionaries: Because language is an instrument of power. Jargon refers to specialized, inaccessible language understood only by those who have been trained to know what it means. In other words, jargon is the language of those who possess more knowledge than some other group. And because they have more knowledge, they are more powerful than the other group. For example, only a trained lawyer would readily understand the sentence: “James conveyed to John Property A in fee simple determinable.” Laymen do not know what these words mean, and, lacking knowledge, they turn to lawyers for help. The laymen place themselves in an inferior position with respect to the lawyer and pay him for his knowledge. Why? Because they do not understand the jargon and need it to achieve a particular economic result. As long as the lawyer controls access to the language, he maintains his superiority and his livelihood.

Dictionaries help me overcome jargon. They enable me to deconstruct language in order to truly understand what it means. All too often, we take for granted what certain words mean. Every word has an ornate genealogy, and understanding that genealogy often reveals striking truths about how we use it. In many cases, unlocking a word’s history demonstrates how language operates to maintain power relationships. By understanding the origin of words, we can understand how jargon truly operates. And with that understanding, we can reverse the power imbalance against us.

Western society—including American society—depends on inequality. It is a great, pernicious delusion that “All Men are created equal.” Yet millions of people blindly mouth these words without understanding that everyone in Western society strives to be unequal to his neighbor. In American life, we strive to make more money than our neighbors, to possess a nicer car, to get a better job, to go to better schools, to be better looking, to have better children, to have more children and to have larger homes. Merely using comparative forms such as “better,” “larger” or “nicer” implies inequality. What incentive would there be to work hard if equality were all we sought? Apologists, of course, resort to typically lawyerlike arguments to justify “All Men are created equal,” namely: “It only means that we all start with equal advantages. After that, we can be unequal.” But this chafes against popular understanding. Many Americans intuitively believe that no single citizen is inherently “better” than another because “equality is an American principle.” The lowliest beggar, in theory, stands on precisely the same level as Bill Gates. We all know this is nonsense. Inequality is alive and well in America, and we would be more honest if we simply admitted that we seek it.

Inequality dominates our lives. In all the relationships we cultivate, there are superior and inferior parties. In the workplace, our boss holds control over us. He tells us where to sit, when to work, when to talk, when to be silent and when to go home. As children, our parents told us what to do, where to go, when to play and when to sleep. As soldiers, those with higher ranks instruct their subordinates to do similar things. And in commerce, we often seek goods from merchants who have far more money and resources than we could ever hope to acquire.

In adult life, commerce takes center stage. After we educate ourselves, we look around and ask ourselves, “Now how do I make money?” After all, without money we cannot pay rent, nor can we buy all the little luxuries that make life more bearable. In order to get the money we need, we look for work, and work is commerce. Our earnings enable us to buy and sell, intensifying our commitment to commerce. But what is the cost? Like all other human interactions, commerce involves superior parties and inferior parties. One party has the goods; the other does not. One party sets the price; the other does not. One party owns the land; the other does not. One dictates the contract terms; the other does not. And the law favors the man who possesses, not the man who seeks to possess.

Commerce has its own language. Behind its seemingly everyday words, we see an entire dynamic of power and struggle emerge. We see a battle between strong parties and weak parties. We see exploitation and control. We see a frenetic quest to gain possession over “things.” By scrutinizing some basic commercial words, we peer into what appears to be a violent world.

1. Exchange.

Let us begin with bargain. Before any commercial transaction can take place, we must “bargain” over the terms. Buyer and seller are adversaries squaring off against one another: How much will it cost? What am I getting? Is there a warranty? And so forth and so on until we complete the deal. Modern dictionaries define “bargain” primarily as: “to discuss the terms of a bargain; haggle; negotiate,”, v. 1.1, Meaning 6 (verb). Looking further, we see that the word derives from the Old French verb “bargaingier,” meaning “to haggle.” This, in turn, leads us to the English word “haggle.” In modern parlance, we understand “haggle” to imply a petty, contentious exchange between a seller and a buyer. Cf. “haggle” definition,, v. 1.1 Meaning 1. Yet this notion of a “bitter quarrel” lies at “bargain’s” original heart. More revealing, the word “haggle” itself derives from a Middle English word ("haggen") meaning to “chop, cut or hack.”, v. 1.1 “haggle”etymology. This reinforces the “bitter” subtext behind “bargain.” We get a mental impression of a buyer and seller “hacking away” at one other in crude attempts to gain an advantage in price, quality or extra service. But let us continue our examination. The dictionary tells us that “haggle” can also mean to “wrangle, dispute or cavil.”, v. 1.1, Meaning 2. “Wrangle,” in turn, means “to argue or dispute, especially in a noisy or angry manner.”, v. 1.1, Meaning 1. The word derives from the Low German “wrangeln” or “wrangen,” meaning to “struggle or make an uproar.” Id., “wrangle” etymology.

So what does it truly mean to “bargain?” Does it not sound like warfare? Buyer and seller “cut, chop and hack” at one another in a contentious, “noisy or angry manner.” Why this bitterness? True, in modern usage the word “bargain” may not imply a vicious dispute over goods, but its etymological roots undeniably suggest a brutal confrontation. We cannot ignore the fact that commerce depends on “bargaining.” If that is so, does commerce imply “noisy, angry, uproarious hacking” over petty terms and advantages? I believe that it does. In our society, in which every citizen desperately attempts to secure inequality over his neighbor by acquiring more property, it is not surprising that his commercial conduct should be characterized by viciousness. The quest to “win” in commerce requires contentious, bitter fighting. Good bargaining means effective fighting. Only by good bargaining can a buyer or seller get the most for the least cost. And is that not what commercial exchanges are all about? “Good guys finish last” in commercial life because they are timid bargainers.

Other commercial words suggest this desperate, warlike posture in economic exchange. “Purchase” is a fine example. In English, buyers have a lexicon from which to select words: They can either “buy” property or they can “purchase” it. In either event, the legal result is the same: They legally obtain title, no matter whether they “buy” or “purchase” it. The only difference is the linguistic tradition from which the verb comes. “Buy” derives from an original Anglo-Saxon word (“bycgan”) that means exactly what is says: “to acquire possession of…by paying or promising to pay an equivalent, especially in money; purchase.”, v. 1.1 “buy” Meaning 1. “Purchase,” on the other hand, has a more revealing history. It derives from the Old French “pourchacier,” which in turn derives from the two Latin roots “pro-,” meaning “for,” and “chacere,” meaning “to chase or pursue.”, v. 1.1 “purchase” etymology. In these roots, we find explanation, too, for the modern French “pour-chasser,” meaning “to hunt or chase for/after.” What does this suggest? When we seek goods to “purchase,” we are “chasing” or “hunting” for them. There is a desperate tone in the etymology, suggesting a quest to chase and hunt down what we seek. Hunting is a violent activity. Is commerce, too, a form of hunting? When we purchase things, we are hunting them down and reducing them to our control. This is consistent with the warlike origins behind “bargain.” Commercial activity requires that we “wrangle” with our adversaries and “hunt down” what they possess. In the end, we win the struggle and continue on our path to attaining inequality over our neighbors.

2. Work and Employment.

Work and employment are commercial pursuits. They enable us to gain the money we need to buy goods or land and to function as economic entities. And because work and employment are commercial pursuits, they reflect the fundamental inequalities inherent in Western society. In employment, there are strong parties and weak parties. The employer holds the power, while the employee serves the employer’s economic interests in return for a “compensation.” How does language embody these dynamics? In the seemingly commonplace words that follow, we see that language exposes the inequalities that sustain employment. And we see that the quest for employment may be nothing more than a quest to be instrumentalized by a superior power.

“Employment,” “employer” and “employee” all derive from a common French root: the verb “employer,” meaning “to use.” “Employers,” then, are active participants in a relationship involving use--users. “Employees” are the passive participants in the same relationship. This is both logically and grammatically true: In French, “employ√©” is the past participle of “employer,” which means “used” or “thing used.” The English word “employee” simply adopts the French participle to mean “person employed by another.” It is a quintessentially inert word. In French, “employer” encompasses any kind of use, such as a person using a computer or a hammer or a hairdryer. In English, we can extend that logic onto the employment relationship. The “employer,” or “user,” literally seizes and “uses” the “employee” or “thing used” to bring about some benefit to his own interests, just the way one would use a computer, hammer or hairdryer to obtain some personal benefit. The “employer,” or “user” plays a human, active role; the “employee,” or “thing used,” on the other hand, assumes the character of an inanimate object that exists solely to benefit the user. Employees, then, are simply tools in their employers’ hands. They are instruments. They exist to benefit their users. Their only value exists in their capacity to perform a specific, useful task for the employer. Just as a user will discard a hairdryer that no longer dries hair, so too will an employer discard an employee who no longer performs the function necessary to serve the employer’s interests.

Grammar exposes the fundamentally unequal relationship between employer and employee. Legal gloss provides even more weight to the inequality. Legal treatises, cases and commentators routinely grapple with the question whether a person is an “employee” or an “independent contractor.” According to these legal sources, the key question is whether the “employer” has the “right to control the manner in which the worker completes his work.” This reinforces the grammatical meaning. Obviously a “user” has the right to control the “thing used.” Employees, in other words, are nothing more than putty that the user can mold to any use he wishes. And it is hard to imagine a more fundamentally unequal relationship than the one that exists between a living, breathing human being and a mass of clay.

But how do we account for the fact that “employees” are also “living, breathing human beings?” The answer is simple: Compensation. Because employers pay employees, it gives them the right to use and control them like tools. Strangely, this word has lost much of the meaning that its Latin roots imply. Today, English speakers use the words “salary,” “pay” and “compensation” interchangeably. But “compensation” means more than merely to “pay” someone. In truth, the word derives from the Latin “com-,” meaning “together or bringing together,” and “pendere,” meaning to “weigh or balance,” or “to counterbalance.” v. 1.1, “compensate” etymology. Recognizing these roots, we see further that “compensate” and “compensation” imply "recompense" for something lost or damaged. Cf., v. 1.1, “compensate,” Meaning 1; “compensation,” Meaning 3 (“something given as an equivalent for services, debt, loss, injury or suffering, etc.”). When a modern English speaker says “pay,” he does not necessarily envision that an injury or loss occasioned payment. But when we say “compensate,” it necessarily implies that something has been damaged, injured, lost, destroyed, forfeited or otherwise sacrificed.

This meaning fits precisely with the employment relationship. The employee suffers injury in the sense that he sacrifices his time for the employer’s benefit. He suffers indignity in the sense that he reduces himself to a “tool” subject to the employer’s “control.” In order to “counterbalance” these forbearances and injuries, the employer “compensates” the employee. It is as if the employer pays for the privilege of using another human being as a tool that brings him material benefit. He “compensates” the employee for dehumanizing him and using him to make money. After all, the employee’s labor inures almost exclusively to the employer’s benefit; whatever “compensation” the employee receives for his work is many times less valuable than the amount that the same work wins for his employer. In law firms, for instance, associate attorneys receive roughly $55 per hour for the time they spend serving their employers, the partners. For the same hour, however, the firm bills the client up to $400. Thus, the employer “uses” the employee to make a 700% profit on the employee’s sacrificed time. That is inequality by any estimation. Yet virtually everyone in our society vigorously searches for “employment.” In light of the words I have analyzed above, the quest for employment is tantamount to a quest to be used. In sum, I find it depressing that our society actually praises such slavishness. After all, the wrong answer to the question “What do you do?” can lead to outright social ostracism. But is it altogether blameworthy to refuse to be used for a superior party’s benefit?

We all need to cope with commerce. The question is how much dignity we must cede in the process. The language of commerce exposes a web of domination, subordination, exploitation, inequality and bitter contentiousness. Commerce is war over limited resources. Commerce is the vehicle that we ride along the path to inequality. While we may never change what human beings truly seek from life, at least we can understand the subtext behind their actions. At least we can be honest about the fact that “equality” is not a value we truly embrace. It is much better to observe the world candidly, without attempting to adhere to principles that no one truly practices. To do that, we must start with language. And in so doing we can deconstruct the power structures that all too often silently envelop us.

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