Monday, September 27, 2010

Word Economics

In a post on LaMarotte today I used the word frugality in a positive context. Reading the post to Brigitte elicited her comment that “frugality” suggests something negative to people nowadays, a kind of return to the Dark Ages, and that a more positive word ought to be used lest I’m misunderstood. Yes, to be sure. Words undergo inflation and deflation too. Financial discipline, one of the phrases that Brigitte offered, among others, has a modern patina; finance is acceptable, indeed almost sacred, and discipline carries the right meaning without evoking morality. Frugal had the same sort of meaning once. It issues from the dative case for fruit in Latin, the plural of which is fruges; that which produces fruit is useful, economical, and proper. The root meaning, therefore, can indeed be understood entirely pragmatically, but Brigitte’s sense that it has acquired a moral intonation in these days, perhaps because it’s not much used in ordinary speech—over against economical, for instance—points out the curious fact that morality itself has lost its bite. Why so? My guess is that it has been too closely associated with sexual morality, and there the modern mind recoils in horror. That starts to be meddlesome. Environmentalism is good, however, and a word like green has altogether positive connotations despite suggesting frugality in the use of natural resources—except, of course, for those who lag behind and rear up in horror because they expect that, behind that color, hides a bureaucrat intent on regulating industry.

Tracing frugal made me aware that English has essentially lost the dative case in grammar, still alive and well in both German and Hungarian. Strange, strange. In English we frequently, but not always, need to use an extra word (to, for) to indicate the dative case. In the sentence, We baked you a cake,  we can leave out the for or put it in (We baked a cake for you). The plural informal you in German is rendered as ihr, but the dative case is euch. No change in English. Good-bye dative case. Good-bye frugality. I’ll take out the recycling bin because I like to be green—and I’ve saved a syllable into the bargain. How parsimonious.

1 comment:

  1. Don't you know, the Great Recession has made frugality fashionable again... it's the new black, darling.