Monday, September 22, 2008



We take language for granted. It comes to us naturally: We do not often think about the words we use to express our daily wants and thoughts. But language conceals ingrained social values. Our words are not static; they are organic. They have grown over centuries. Our words have intricate histories, and those histories often reveal startling truths about the things we say. In many cases, language reinforces power relationships that have long existed in society. But because language is organic, those power relationships are not apparent at first glance. We must dig beneath the words to discover what they actually tell us.

This is no easy task for an English speaker. English is a haphazard mishmash of three distinct Indo-European linguistic traditions: Germanic; Latin; and French. I have had the good fortune to learn all three traditions, and for virtually every English word, I can pinpoint the tradition from which it came. Those traditions unlock the word’s organic genealogy, and only then is it possible to truly grasp what the word means. We must look not only to the English word itself, but also to its corresponding equivalents in other Indo-European languages. These references shed light on the meanings and power implications buried in everyday English words.

Debt fascinates me because it implies a quintessentially uneven power relationship. We know that a “debtor” owes money to another person. Formally, English calls this other person a “creditor.” By giving money to the debtor in the first instance, the creditor creates an obligation in the debtor to give the money back. The creditor occupies a superior position with respect to the debtor. Either the debtor returns the money—and anything else for which he bargained—or the law forces the debtor to do so. If the law favors one party over another, it is safe to say that the favored party is “superior” to the other. And if one party can literally compel another to do something, is that party not “superior” to the other?

Still, debt means more than to merely owe money. The dictionary tells us that a “debt” in English means: (1) something owed by one person to another; (2) an obligation to pay or return something; or (3) a sin. A sin? How did that get in there? It is one thing to simply owe someone $500. It is quite another to say that owing that money is a sin. Sin implies an offense against religious authority, a transgression against God that weighs on the individual conscience. Sin implies moral guilt, not just legal obligation or liability. Does this mean it is immoral to have debt? This would render the greater part of American society irretrievably sinful. Perhaps more troublingly, does this mean that creditors not only have legal power over debtors, but spiritual power as well? Does their status as creditors empower them to burden a debtor’s conscience with knowledge that he has transgressed against God’s law as well as man’s?

To truly see whether debt means sin, we must dig beneath the word. “Debt” derives from combining two simple classical Latin words: “debere” (“to owe”) and “habere” (“to have”). So, in simple terms, we see that debt literally means “to have things to owe.” These roots say nothing about moral transgression; they merely say that a person “has things that he owes.” Perhaps we can find a clue in the purer English word “owe.” “Owe” derives from a Middle English—and earlier Germanic—word: “aughte.” That leads us to the modern English word “ought,” which essentially doubles for the word “should.”

We all think we know what we “ought” or “should” do in particular circumstances. Or do we? When we say we “should” do something, we acknowledge that there is some external—and usually superior—force constraining our freedom of action. We may want to do something, but we should do something else. Why? Because we are attempting to conform our behavior to an external standard in order to avoid negative consequences. When we do not do what we should, our conscience bites us. We feel guilty. And perhaps we will suffer more tangible consequences as well, beyond those that our own minds can inflict on us. In any event, failing to do what we should triggers moral culpability. We have failed to conform to an external standard. Our nonconformance makes us guilty.

We have arrived at the intersection between “debt” and “sin.” If we “owe” someone money, we have a “debt.” If we “owe” something, that means we “should” give it to the creditor. If we do not give it to the creditor, we have failed morally. We are guilty because we did not meet the moral standard that the creditor has imposed upon us. In this sense, a creditor creates not just legal obligations in the debtor, but also moral ones. This makes him incredibly powerful: He dictates not only how the debtor acts, but also how he feels. He dominates both the debtor’s physical and emotional behavior: He must pay the money back or face legal compulsion; and if he does not pay the money back, he feels guilty. This is a double penalty.

Words in related Indo-European languages strengthen the connection between “debt” and “sin.” In German—a close linguistic relative to English—the word for “debt” is “Schuld.” “Schuld,” in turn, can also mean “guilt” or “fault.” Obviously, guilt and fault imply morally wrong behavior. Wahrig’s German Dictionary bears this out in its “Schuld” definition, as I translate: “1. An obligation to give back money; 2. A person’s worthiness of punishment for violating God’s law (sin) that can be felt in the conscience; 3. The internal relationship of an actor to his act; punishable misconduct; or 4. To bear responsibility for something.” In German, as in English, “debt” primarily means an obligation to pay money to a creditor. But it also means conscious sin that is punishable under God’s law. Punishment, like debt, implies an uneven power relationship: One party inflicts pain on another for failing to meet a standard of behavior. It is significant that the German definition links the ideas of debt, guilt, conscience and punishment. All these concepts require a superior party and an inferior party. They strengthen the moral texture imbedded in the word “debt.” A debtor is not merely financially liable to his creditor; he is morally liable to him as well.

Russian provides further support for the connection between debt and sin. Although Russian is not a component language of English, it nonetheless shares its Indo-European roots. In Russian, “dolg” means “debt.” Significantly, that root also governs the word “dolzhen,” meaning “should.” As in English, there is a relationship in Russian between debt and moral conformance. If one does not pay his “debt,” he is not acting as he “should.” And that means he has failed to meet the moral standard.

In this linguistic light, can we fairly say that “debt” is “sinful?” Perhaps that would be overstatement, but debt unquestionably implies a power relationship, just as sin does. The word “debt” yields an entire complex of negative attributes: “owing;” “sin;” “moral nonconformance;” “punishment;” “guilt;” “fault;” “obligation;” “liability;” “legal compulsion;” “punishable misconduct.” The debtor incorporates these negative attributes. They bear on his property, his body and his conscience. They relegate him to an inferior physical and emotional position to his creditor.

Interestingly, the “negative complex” imbedded within “debtor” has a thematic opposite: creditor. While the dictionary reveals a negative complex behind “debt,” it reveals a positive complex behind “credit.” At first glance, we see that a “creditor” is simply “a person who extends credit or to whom money is owed.” But to truly understand a “creditor,” we must examine the Latin root “credere,” meaning “to believe.” This initially gives a positive impression: The creditor believes that his debtor will pay him back. Believe is a positive word. It implies trust in an idea, and trust implies loyalty, faith and principle. The English word “credit—“ which in turn derives from “credere”—reinforces “creditor” with an even more positive glimmer. Credit means: “1. belief or trust; confidence; faith; 2. the quality of being credible or trustworthy; 3. [] a person’s reputation; good name; 4. praise or approval to which one is entitled; 5. a person or thing bringing approval or honor…9. (a) trust in one’s integrity in money matters and one’s ability to meet payments when due; (d) permission to pay later for goods or services.”

Creditors, then, are morally pure compared to their guilty debtors. They have “belief,” “faith,” “confidence,” and “trust.” They are entitled to “praise,” “honor” and “approval.” Thematically, the creditor beams with positive attributes; the debtor sinks under negative ones. It is only natural that the creditor is superior to the debtor, whom he can punish with physical and emotional pain. Through the language that defines creditors and debtors, we see a lopsided confrontation between pure and tainted, between good and bad. In this sense, debt functions in precisely the same way as sin: It posits a good party and a bad party, and the bad party suffers for his transgression, both physically and psychically. In these simple, everyday words, we see power structures at work.

Debt pervades American society. No one has enough money, so they borrow it. Sometimes they borrow it for necessities, such as a home or an education. Other times they borrow it frivolously for luxuries. No matter their motivation, they are all debtors. They subject themselves to the legal and moral power of their creditors. And creditors use their power for commercial advantage. Although the classic relationship between creditor and debtor envisions an individual giving money to another individual on the understanding that he will pay the money back, today the typical creditor is no longer an individual. Instead, a typical creditor is a faceless institution dedicated to making a profit on money it loans. For every dollar loaned, the creditor receives two back. When the creditor has millions of debtors in his grip, he cannot fail to win. It is good to be a creditor. It is easy money.

There is a reason why creditors always win. They leverage not only their legal power over debtors, but also their moral power. Whether debtors acknowledge it or not, they feel a sense of “wrong” when they cannot pay what they owe. In law, they have nothing but an obligation to pay money. The law cannot force them to feel bad about the fact that they cannot pay. But a debtor's own conscience can trigger negative emotions, and it does. Creditors know this. Their “collection agents” admonish debtors to “do the right thing.” They scold them for “disrespecting someone who gave you money” or “betraying their trust.” They tell them: “Don’t you feel bad that you haven’t paid us back?” The law does not require that a debtor feels guilty because he can’t pay. But creditors like it when the debtor feels this way, because it increases the chances that the debtor will give him their money. It provides a motivation to pay. And from a power perspective, a superior party always relishes his authority to inflict pain on those under his power. Creditors are no exception. They have the power to burden debtors’ minds and spirits, not just their bank accounts. That is real power, and they exercise it.

Language tells us the story behind the word “debt.” Behind those four simple letters lies a complex history of power. Creditors will always win. They will always hold the legal, moral and even linguistic advantages. We may not be able to change our status as debtors. But at least we can understand the game that is being played upon us, and we can—to some extent—choose how we feel. While language may brand the debtor a “sinner,” only we have control over our individual conscience. Neither law nor collection calls can affect that.

No comments: