Peace and War (Two Gifts from France)
By Anatoly Liberman
I do not aim at competing with Tolstoy, but my essay, which, like War and Peace, also deals with a French invasion, however minor, has certain advantages over the world-famous novel. First, it is significantly shorter. Second, its message does not invite polemic. After the publication of Anna Karenina (which followed War and Peace), a journalist asked Tolstoy to formulate its idea in a few lucid statements. Tolstoy replied that if he were able to do so, he would not have written a thick book. Or else, he would be obliged to repeat everything said in the novel. This answer has been quoted to death, yet it bears repetition. Unlike Tolstoy, I have no trouble expressing my thought in a sentence or two, thus making the rest of the story redundant. This is the thought: Most designations of abstract concepts go back to words for easily perceivable objects or concrete actions; peace and war are no exceptions. The rest constitutes what the authors of sonatas and symphonies call development. By way of apology, I will quote another great master, this time Brahms, who observed that anybody can compose a good theme: the development is the main thing.
Little has changed with respect to hostilities and reconciliation since the earliest periods of human history, except perhaps for our professed attitude toward them. Although people have fought as long as they have existed and are today fighting with greater cruelty than ever, in the sphere of public relations we are expected to condemn war (advertising attacks and invasions is bad manners), whereas in the past war was a recognized fact of life, like diseases and death. No one doubted the intentions of a more powerful neighbor or believed in treaties. However, peace has always been viewed as something highly desirable and war as the greatest misfortune. The main prayer of the medieval Scandinavians, famous for their aggressiveness (we have not forgotten the Vikings’ raids), was for peace and a good harvest, and those people did not differ from other tribes. The history of the words peace and war confirms what old chronicles and heroic literature tell us.
Peace migrated to English from French. Pax, the etymon of peace, stood for “something fixed, united, joined together”; hence pact. Among its numerous, often barely recognizable cognates, whose meanings go all the way from “make firm; satisfy” to “seize, receive” and thereby “make firm,” the ancestor of Engl. fair “beautiful, pleasing” turns up (Germanic f corresponds to Latin p, as in the pater ~ father couple), and it is especially interesting. Peace, with its show of stability, was clearly understood as a good thing. In most Slavic languages the word for “peace” is mir, known to the outside world from the name of the space station “Mir,” though in Russian mir has two senses: “peace” and “world.” This word is akin to mil- “nice, pleasant.” The sense attested in the English adjective fair does not seem to have been present in the closest cognates of pax, but the Germanic-Slavic parallel is not fortuitous: peace is something “fixed” and “beautiful.” Another curious coincidence may be worthy of note. Russian mir “world” developed from “community of farmers,” so that “togetherness” yielded “peace.” Obviously related to pax is Latin pagus “(rural) district, the country,” originally “landmark fixed in the earth,” whence paganus “rustic,” later “pagan.” Once again living together, in a community, became inseparable from “peace.”
In English, peace replaced the old word that some other Germanic languages have preserved. Such is German Friede(n), extant as the first component of the name Friedrich ~ Fredrick (-rich meant “powerful, mighty” and “rich.”). Its root can be detected in free and friend. Here too some ties are loose, but one of the basic meanings in this group of words was “to be one’s sibling” and therefore “to love.” (We love our relatives by definition, don’t we? In the Middle Ages, the family protected its members regardless of their behavior, and being a sibling meant being “loved.” Here is part of the first conversation between Lord Fauntleroy and his grandfather, the Earl of Dorincourt. “Of course, you would like anyone to look like your father; but of course you would enjoy the way your grandfather looked, even if he was not like your father. You know how it is yourself about admiring your relations.” The earl leaned back in his chair and stared. He could not be said to know how it was about admiring his relations. He had employed most of his noble leisure quarrelling violently with them, in turning them out of his house, and applying abusive epithets to them; and they all hated him cordially.)
From whichever angle etymologists may examine Frieden, the result turns out to be the same: “a community of people living close to one another on amicable terms.” There was no word for “peace” common to all the Germanic, let alone all the Indo-European, languages. In the Germanic group, the most puzzling of them was Gothic gawairthi (this is an Anglicized spelling of a 4th-century form), which may have meant “a collective happening of good things”; in any case, the prefix ga-, like Greek syn- and Latin con-, points to something done by a group. Peace meant coming to terms with one’s neighbors. The proper name Irene traces to Greek eirene “peace.” Mythology is full of personified concepts, and this is how the Greek goddess Eirene came into being. A splendid statue of Eirene was erected at Athens, to celebrate the peace with Sparta, but there are no tales of her.
By contrast, the mythology of Ares, Mars, Othin and other war gods leaves nothing to be desired. Nor are monuments to them lacking. Here the linguist again notes the absence of a word common to all the Germanic languages. German has Hader “altercation,” Streit “fight(ing), and Krieg “war.” All of them, though ancient, are of dubious origin. Hader “strife” has especially conspicuous old cognates, for Hothr, personified strife (another Anglicized spelling), was the blind god who killed Baldr, the shining god of the Scandinavian pantheon. Streit resembles Engl. stride, but the nature of the connection has not been made out. Krieg seems to have meant “obstinacy” and at one time probably referred to any commotion. If I remember correctly, someone has explained it as a sound-imitative word for “dismal noise; screeching,” but such is not its established etymology. Dutch oorlog “war” (with cognates almost everywhere in Old Germanic) is associated with fate (destiny) and challenge.
War, like peace, came to England from France, but they reached the English language from different points. At one time there was a Germanic word that must have sounded approximately like werre or wyrre “disruption of order”, akin to German verwirren “entangle, confound” and Wirrwarr “confusion,” which share their root with the English comparative worse. It has not survived in English but made its way into Romance. A dependable German etymological dictionary explains that the old Germanic-speakers were everybody’s teachers of warfare. Being good pupils, the Normans conquered England, forgot Latin bellum, borrowed the now forgotten English word, and assigned the meaning “war” to it. Borrowings that had initial w- in English appear in French with gu- (compare the etymological doublets ward and guard). Hence French guerre. The French word stayed in English or rather returned home, back to its Germanic environment. As a result, both war and peace are guests from French, and so, incidentally, is strife, related to strive. But no one should suffer from the inferiority complex: blood was shed with equal generosity on both sides of the language border. Also, as we know from Orwell, peace is war, and war is peace.
Anatoly Liberman is the author of Word Origins…And How We Know Them as well as An Analytic Dictionary of English Etymology: An Introduction. His column on word origins, The Oxford Etymologist, appears here, each Wednesday. Send your etymology question to firstname.lastname@example.org; he’ll do his best to avoid responding with “origin unknown.”