Wednesday, 17 February 2016

The Way to Wealth!

English is a funny old language. 

Being a long-term TEFLer, I've always enjoyed its idiosyncracies and foibles - the variable pronunciation of 'ea', for example, or the way that consonant combinations lurk in the linguistic shadows, waiting to mug any unsuspecting language learner (try getting students to say 'dwindle'. Or 'lengths'). Languages are in a constant state of evolution - by the time I've finished writing this article, at least one neologism or new meaning will have entered the English language. Words themselves have a habit of shifting meaning over time, in much the same way that rivers meander sinuously across a flood plain through centuries of ever-flowing movement. 'Enthusiast' started off as having heavy religious connotations, before becoming pejorative and then ending up as a way of describing someone with perhaps a not-too-healthy interest in a hobby, as in 'train enthusiast'. Likewise, 'silly' originally meant something like 'holy', then 'innocent', and now it's a polite way of saying 'bloody stupid'.

And seeing as words are the way in which we describe the world, it should come as no surprise that what we are able to say informs what we are able to envisage. The reason English doesn't have the alleged Eskimo 40 words for snow is because, generally speaking, it hardly has enough time to settle for us to get much further than 'wet snow', 'slush' and 'fluffy'. I, for one, would like a single world that describes the kind of snow that rubs your face red raw while cycling through it, although I suspect that it would sound like a prolonged swear word.

Now, here's a good little word to consider - 'Wealth'.

Come on, who doesn't think of wealth at least once a day? Look at the newspapers, look at the ads, looks at your social media stream: Odds are there'll be at least one advert there saying something along the lines of 'Get wealthy now!' or 'Person from [insert town here] shows how they got wealthy!', or 'Get this Wealth Creation Tool Now!'

But let's consider the word itself. 'Wealth', originally, didn't have a purely fiscal connotation. In fact, its root is the same as the word 'well', and 'health'. It really refers to one's well-being: When you congratulate a newly married couple with the phrase 'May you have health, wealth and happiness', you are not actually wishing that they be financially well-off, but in fact that they have an all-encompassing well-being.

I think perhaps it's time that the original meaning was somewhat reappropriated. That way, when someone talks about 'wealth creation', they won't be thinking solely about money. If we think of wealth only in this latter sense, can we say that we are truly wealthy? Should we, in fact, be talking of 'well-being creation?' Have you ever heard a politician talking of that without being dismissed as something of a hippy?

OK, and we segue slightly clumsily into the political bit. It strikes me that the primary role of any government should be the preservation, upholding and enhancement of the Common Wealth. Not the Commonwealth - that's a group of countries that resemble a particularly fractious family gathering at a dodgy wedding. By Common Wealth, I mean the well-being of all the people who live in a state - not merely financial, but educational, health-wise, happiness etc. If a government does not aim to preserve, uphold and enhance these things, then frankly, what good are they doing? If they, for example, don't ensure that companies pay their fair share of tax, or turn a blind eye to assets being salted away in tax havens, or ensure that a health system is not fragmented and parts sold off, or privatise key national resources, how can they be said to be caring for the well-being of all? A government that thinks 'wealth' just means 'money' is one that is wrong.

In my previous article, I talked about how sometimes we don't have a word for something. When we don't have a way of describing a thing, then we may never even be able to visualise it, to conceive of its very existence. However, when we have a word whose meaning has changed, then that can warp our view of the world - 'wealth' is a very nice example of that. To paraphrase myself earlier, language is a tricky bugger. And our words and what we mean them to, er, mean, are inherently political. Language, like politics, is too important to be left solely to the politicians.

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