Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Translating Honor

Honor is a word now in temporary decline. The word belongs to the cultural periods of history not to civilization. It suggests the appropriate fusion of body and of soul, thus bravery and courage, proper to the body under stress, and a transcendental stance, proper to the soul, which, in practice, is willing to sacrifice itself for the community. In its highest expression it suggests intelligence; in its low forms in manifests as duels, honor killings, vendettas and other pointless mayhem. Honesty derives from honor; its current form, telling the truth, is actually a later development dating to around 1400 (Online Etymology Dictionary); the older sense, of honorable, is preserved in the phrase of “making an honest woman of her.” Honor and truth-telling are intimately linked in German: Ehre, ehrlich—and in Hungarian, to leave the Latin or Germanic languages: Becsület, becsületes. The same is true in Greek: Timē, timioz.

The decline of a word very much at home in ages of kings, dukes, and nobles—and the bloated and contradictory meanings it developed by abuse—is understandable. But surely the qualities that it once represented, at best, have not disappeared and are still valued. I got to thinking. How would we translate honor into modern. My nominee is “integrity.” Applied to a person, it has precisely the same meaning that honor once had. It is rooted in the Latin for wholeness, completeness—which in a human means the same fusion of powers honor represents. Integrity is a kind of humble form of honor fitting for a democratic time. Which is appropriate. Proverbs (15:33) tells us: “The fear of the Lord is the instruction of wisdom; and before honor is humility.”


  1. I like this.

    Integrity, honor, loyalty are treasures as remote today as gold doubloons from Spain and escudos from Peru, and I like to feel their wealth trickling through my fingers.

  2. I've thought a lot about honor. I would say honor is more of a social value and integrity more an individual value. It's harder to use the word integrity when speaking of someone else whereas one's conduct when honorable is usually recognized as such by the community. The consequences of "making an honest woman of her" are very public and lasting.

    Back when I was thinking about honor the idea came to me that it was a form of law in less legalized societies than ours. One had to be able to count on a man's (or a woman's) word. In order to do that one had to know that he or she was bound by a code of honor. Somewhere along the line that was lost. Well, if it ever really existed in the first place. I think of Shakespeare's character Iago in Othello. The great, dishonorable traitors have also always existed. Perhaps in their treason they are protecting their integrity?

    1. Your notion that we like to deal with people who adhere to a "code of honor" is so very true. That context is expandable to those who adhere to all higher codes, by whatever name...if we think they really believe it. The curious thing is that you can almost, sort of, feel that, dealing with them.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.