Monday, March 2, 2009


I have often written about the subtle conceptual complexes that lurk behind everyday words. In many cases, it is necessary to investigate several related words to fully appreciate these complexes. In English, these “word families” typically collect around common etymological roots. For example, the English words “convention,” “prevent” and “ventilate” all derive from the common Latin root “ventus,” meaning “wind.” Obviously modern English assigns different meanings to each derivative word. But we can make sense from those meanings by closely examining the common root.

Yesterday I watched a nature program in which the narrator described a female polar bear’s mating process. The narrator called the female’s potential mates “suitors.” What a wonderful old English word. When you hear it, you think of charming Victorian dandies competing with one another for a patient, young, pale-faced beauty. You think about gifts, polite conversation, machinations, ploys and ultimately some form of amorous advance toward the female. A “suitor” always seems to be a male bent upon conquering a woman. So too in the wild: A male bear “suitor” competes with several others to win the female.

“Suitor” derives from a Latin root: sequi, or “to follow or continue.” Several other English words come from the same place; and they are all conceptually similar to “suitor.” These include the verbs “to sue” and “to pursue.” In legal terms, a person who “sues” also brings a “lawsuit.” In other words, a legal “suitor” is also a “plaintiff.”

What do these words mean? And why are they significant? By examining the definitions, we detect an interesting trend: All these words imply competitive, intentional action toward an object to be won or conquered. Just as the bear “suitor” “pursues” his female mate, so too does a human “suitor” “pursue” a desirable woman or a lucrative money award in court. These words suggest chasing, struggling, competing and conquering. Put another way, humans may claim reason, but in their “pursuits,” “lawsuits” and “suits,” they reveal themselves little better than a bear “suitor.” Conceptually, both animals and humans ruthlessly compete and strive for desired objects. And they both want to conquer those objects.

According to, “to pursue” means: “1. to follow in order to overtake, capture, kill, etc; chase; 2. to follow close upon; 3. to strive in order to gain; seek to attain or accomplish.”, v. 1.1, “pursue” definition. Here, we see the primal nature behind the root “sequi.” Those who “pursue” enter a competitive race. They “chase” their targets in order to “capture, kill and overtake” them. The word has an especially animal-like connotation. It brings hunting to mind. We imagine a hunter “chasing” a wounded animal. He attempts to “kill” it and bring it under his control. He “follows close upon” the stricken target, hounding it. He forces the target to struggle for survival. If the target fails, the hunter “wins the race” and “overtakes” his quarry. The target then submits and the hunter reduces the animal to his dominion. “Pursuers,” in other words, are strong. They chase and conquer the weak, then use them for their own purposes. Through strength of will, the pursuer acts upon his intent to conquer an object. What is power if not the ability to impose one’s will upon a struggling object?

These concepts apply to other words involving the root “sequi.” Interestingly, they refine the brute, forceful nature of “pursue” and transfer it into more “civilized settings.” For example, the word “suitor” means: “1. a man who courts or woos a woman; 2. a petitioner or plaintiff; 4. an individual who seeks to buy a business.” In these definitions, we see different kinds of hunting. We see a man seeking to “win a woman” with charming conversations rather than weapons. Similarly, we see a man seeking to win a monetary reward through the law rather than a rifle or trap. Lastly, we see a man seeking to take over a business by paying a price.

In each case, we see men attempting to force their wills onto pliant objects. Just like a hunter, a “suitor” “pursues” a woman. He chases her with his affections. He intends to “overtake and capture” her. If the woman resists, he continues his advances, just as the hunter redoubles his effort when his quarry struggles. Similarly, the “legal suitor” attempts to “capture” his desired object by legal process. He “competes” with his adversary through argument and procedure rather than a hunter’s tools. In the end, he seeks to impose his will on his adversary and win money. Lastly, the “business purchaser” seeks to impose his will on a business by “capturing it.” Like the hunter, he sees something he wants, he “pursues it” and he makes it his own.

Not surprisingly, the noun “suitor” has a verb to match. A “suitor” not only “pursues;” rather, he also “sues.” “To sue” means: “4. to institute legal proceedings against; 6. to court a woman; or 2. to woo.” Here, we again see the power complex at work. Those who “sue” exercise their power by bringing legal authority against their opponents, or by bringing amorous advances toward their desired romantic objects. Again, we see “hunter-like” images in which a powerful “subject” uses any necessary methods to “chase, overtake, capture and kill” a fleeing “object.” We sense a chase, a race, a competition. The hunter either wins his prize or the animal escapes.

I mention all this because these we use these words every day without truly understanding what they suggest. And we use them in the belief that we are “reasonable creatures,” not beasts. Yet language betrays us far more than we typically care to admit. After all, when we “pursue” objects, we act little differently than bears in the wild. In basic terms, we formulate intentions, we visualize our targets and we set about imposing our wills on those targets, whether or not they care to go along with our intentions. True, we may have objects greater than finding mates or winning money. But that does not alter the conceptual complex inherent in the words “pursue,” “suitor” and “sue.” And, like animals, we struggle to win mates and money far more often than we might like to think.

These words show us all to be hunters. In our lives, we constantly seek to dominate other people and things. Competition is everywhere; we must be “suitors” to win what we want. We seek to transform our will into tangible reality by “chasing, overtaking, capturing and killing” anything or anyone who stands in our way. We may do this without violence. Yet we do it nonetheless. In that light, human beings should not elevate themselves too highly above their mammalian ancestors. In short, we may have loftier goals than finding a mate. But we still “pursue” those goals with as much dogged vigor as any wild beast.

In a commercial world with limited resources, we must hunt, compete, chase, overtake and kill to survive, even if we do so in “socially acceptable” ways.

1 comment:

SteveW said...

Bears are eminently more reasonable than I ever imagined.