Wednesday, December 3, 2008



I have written that English is a merry hodgepodge of German, French and Latin. To truly understand English, it is necessary to understand these three disparate linguistic traditions. Virtually every English word derives from these traditions. By understanding the unique history behind every word, we can better understand the true meanings concealed in the words we use every day. And that can help us bring intellectual order to difficult problems.

At bottom, English is a Germanic language. Its most basic words—such as common nouns, prepositions, connectors and core verbs—all derive from a Germanic source. That is why many English speakers can intuit the meaning of basic German sentences, even if they speak no German. “Core” English words are virtually identical to German. For example: Meine Hand hat fünf Finger.” You do not need to study German to guess that means: “My hand has five fingers.” English began with German. For that reason many German words are self-explanatory.

But much has changed in English over the centuries. Many Germanic words have drifted far from their original meanings, even if they look the same in both languages. There are many reasons for this, not least the overriding influence of Church Latin and Court French on the common tongue. These influences have created separate lexicons in English. Put another way, it is possible to say the same thing in English with a word drawn from each distinct linguistic tradition. If you receive some bodily harm, for example, you can say: “I’m hurt!” That is German-based. You can also say: “I am injured!” That is Latin-based. “Injured” sounds more sophisticated than “hurt,” even though the basic meaning is the same. Latin—and its French offspring—typically offers the English speaker a means to “dress up” core German concepts. Another example: If you put your arms around a friend, you can say: “I embrace you.” That sounds more sophisticated than: “I put my arms around you.” Why? Because “embrace” comes from the French words “en” and “bras,” meaning “in” and “arm.” But the “core” English sounds much more akin to the German word for “embrace:” umarmen,” literally, “to put arms around.”

Lust is another core German word. Lust is interesting because the word is the same in both English and German, but their meanings differ in subtle ways. For one reason or another, English did not adopt a Latin or French “frill” to obfuscate “Lust.” It simply retained the hard-hitting, original German orthography. When a modern English speaker hears the word “lust,” it generally connotes unrestrained sexual desire. There is a moralistic overtone to the word. “Lust” is associated with “the flesh,” and in Christian discourse, “the flesh” stands in negative contrast to “the soul.” Modern English dictionaries reinforce these negative connotations. Webster tells us that “lust” means: (1) a desire to gratify the senses; bodily appetite; (2) sexual desire; excessive sexual desire; or (3) an overmastering desire. Webster’s New World College Dictionary, 4th Ed. In Middle English, “Lust” meant “pleasure, delight and appetite.” “Lust,” then, has everything to do with the body. Lust expresses the body’s basest desires, whether for sex, food, drink, sleep or any other basic stimulus. From a Christian perspective, the body is a burden. It distracts the mind from attention to the soul. “Lust” is “bad” because it reflects the body’s “overmastering” influence over a person. In English, “Lust” connotes shameful indulgence to the body.

In German, “die Lust” also refers to the body. But there is no overriding moralistic element in the word. Wahrig’s German Dictionary defines “die Lust” as: “(1) Inclination; gentle impulse; need; (2) good feeling; pleasant appeal; joy; and (3) satisfaction; enjoyment” (my translations). In these definitions, we see that German “Lust” does not condemn the body for its inclinations. In German, the body’s impulses are “gentle.” They bring about “pleasant appeal” and “good feelings,” not “overmastering desire.” It is more neutral than its English counterpart. For example, Germans typically use “Lust” to express even the most innocuous daily desires: “Hast Du Lust auf einen Kaffee?” (“Do you feel like [having] a coffee?”). In English, it would be profound overstatement to ask: “Do you lust for a coffee?” Both words refer to a “bodily desire” for something. In English the desire is “overmastering.” In German, it is “gentle.”

What do these differing definitions tell us about our relationship to the body? Language defines a culture as much as it regulates grammar. In English, the word “Lust” negatively brands bodily inclinations. It is permissible to “want” to eat, but it is somehow immodest to “lust” for a meal. In German, on the other hand, there is nothing wrong with saying: “I have lust for a sandwich.” There is no shame in the body’s desire for some food. Unlike German “Lust,” English “Lust” has assumed a moral dimension with respect to bodily desire. It compares all bodily inclinations with sexual inclinations. In the German definition, the word “sex” does not appear anywhere. Yet it is quite conspicuous in the English formulation. It lends an aura of shame to all other bodily inclinations. Does it make any sense to treat sex differently than eating, drinking or sleeping? Despite centuries of moral suspicion with regard to sexual contact in Western society, it is incontestable that sex is a core human function. It is remarkably similar to hunger, thirst and sleep. When you eat your fill, the last thing you want is more food. When you’ve slept enough, you can’t sleep any more. Similarly, after having sex, you don’t want more sex—at least for a while. This is the nature of bodily desire: It rises, satisfies itself, then subsides. Biologically, there is nothing shameful about it. That is just the way it works.

German “Lust” reflects a more candid relationship to the body than English “Lust.” In centuries past, English used the word “Lust” in much the same way as German does now. After all, in Middle English, “Lust” signified “pleasure, delight and appetite.” While those words can be linked to sex, they also have neutral associations. It is possible to take pleasure and delight in a meal or even a walk in the forest. German uses “Lust” in the same way. It neutrally expresses “what the body wants” at a particular moment. It might want to eat. It might want to go to the movies. It might want to sleep. Sex does not dominate the definition as it does in modern English. Over the centuries, English “Lust” took on a shameful aura that associated all bodily desires with sex. It is debatable whether sex should be deemed shameful at all, but there is no doubt that—in English, at least—it subordinated all other bodily impulses.

By understanding “Lust’s” German roots, we can better understand the “idea complex” concealed in the word. Historically speaking, “Lust” did not refer to shameful bodily desire; it referred to any bodily desire, including sex. With that in mind, we should regard the English word “Lust” as referring to the whole complex of bodily desires. It can be difficult to understand what the body tells us from moment to moment. Yet the word “Lust” helps us comprehend how changeable—and banal—the body truly is. One moment the body craves food. In another moment, it craves rest. At yet another moment, it yearns for a drink. These are “lusts” in the German sense: Inclinations to satisfy the body. Should we be ashamed? I don’t think so. We are, after all, composed of flesh, and flesh is like an insistent baby: It cries when it is hungry and laughs when it is having fun. Whether laughing or crying, we cannot ignore its demands. “Lust” refers to the body’s constant demands. Satisfying our lusts may not be intellectually stimulating, but we must satisfy them nonetheless. In my view, if we can understand them, they are easier to manage—and to appreciate them for what they are. Lusts do not stem from the soul. The soul does its own business. And the soul should not vex itself because the body pulls in different directions.

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