While I would like this blog post to be able to clarify some of my ramblings from yesterday’s class, I can tell you right now that it is not going to. However, instead of using this space to fall into linguistic/philosophical problems which I do not have the tools to eloquently handle, I’m going to focus on one small—and violent—word; “need.”
Early in the semester Dr. McCoy pointed me towards the word “need.” I immediately looked up the etymology but, as things usually happen in a semester’s time, I forgot about its surprising history until yesterday’s class.
A chunk of yesterday’s conversation operated around the word “need”: What does a house need in order to be called a house? What does a house need to be a home? Does a house need potable water to be a house? Does a house need a dishwasher for sustainability? Are needs prescriptive or descriptive? What does a word need to still be that word and not another word? What does a country need for security?
The list could go on. These questions have circulated all semester. For example; what does a bond need for being rated AAA? We saw that the answer to that “need” was apparently nothing we could call “secure” or “dependable.”
Need. I don’t need to describe its etymology for you here. I don’t need to because the internet has already done so here. A quick look through the etymology of “need” reveals that its origins trace through desire, violence, misery, death, slavery, and rape.
Words have histories that are intrinsically tied to our own history. This is not new information, but I think it’s important not to forget it. It’s also important to acknowledge the difficulty involved in trying to discover the origin of a word. As Roach points out in Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance: “memory operates as both quotation and invention, an improvisation on borrowed themes, with claims on the future as well as the past…a longing for clear beginnings (cognate to origins) accompanies an even more pronounced desire for the telos of perfect closure.” If we are trying to find a word’s origin, we may (unintentionally) change its history and create its future.
Words have histories. If I use the word “need” with no intention for it to refer to “violence,” is the body of the word no longer a surrogate for its past meaning? If the meaning changes but the word does not, does the word constitute some kind of effigy? Is this important to think about or is it all just reductive discourse pointing towards the failure of language? I HAVE NONE OF THESE ANSWERS, but I’ll keep reading.
If all things circulate, then the origin of the word “need” will too. Maybe it already does. I’ll finish with this quote from Dominion: “You cannot overcome me,” Lowe declared, “I am your history and religion” (Baker 364).