One of the hot new words as this campaign season thunders down the stretch is “uncertainty.” What’s new here is thinking that uncertainty is new. On the contrary, experience tells us that very few things are ever sure things.
One of the hot new words as this campaign season thunders down the stretch is “uncertainty.”
Consumers aren’t spending because they’re uncertain where their next dollar is coming from, often because they’re uncertain when they’ll find a job.
Businesses aren’t hiring because they’re uncertain when they’ll start selling enough products or services to justify it. Of course, people without incomes from jobs can’t be much help there.
Without the revenue to support hiring, businesses need to turn to loans. But banks aren’t lending to businesses because of ... uncertainty.
What’s new here is thinking that uncertainty is new. On the contrary, experience tells us that very few things are ever sure things.
In fact, Benjamin Franklin famously narrowed sure things down to two: death and taxes.
Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations” cites the full quote, from a letter from Franklin to Jean-Batiste Leroy on Nov. 13, 1789:
“Our new Constitution is now established, and has an appearance that promises permanency; but in this world nothing can be said to be certain, except death and taxes.”
The base word “certain” has been traced through Middle English, Old French and Vulgar Latin to the Latin “certus,” meaning “determined, fixed.” That word was originally the past participle of the verb “cernere,” for “to distinguish, decide.” But that verb originally meant “to sift, separate.”
See? Even “certain” experienced uncertainty.
Webster’s gives “sure” as the synonym for “certain.” “Sure” is a much more fertile source for idiomatic phrases: “make sure,” “to be sure,” “for sure” and “sure enough,” as well as “surefire,” “sure-footed” and the informal “sure thing.”
It’s also the base for the verbs “assure,” “ensure” and “insure.”
The path of origin for “sure” is a short one: from the Old French “seur,” which was derived from the Latin “securus,” combining the prefix “se-” (“free from, apart”) and “cura” (“care”).
Of course, that’s also the root for “secure” and “security.” One specialized use in the financial world is “securities” for “any evidence of debt or ownership.” Commonly, this refers to stock certificates or bonds, some of which are not necessarily all that secure.
The aforementioned Latin “cura,” meaning “care,” is also the root for “cure,” “curative” and “curator,” and is related to “curious.”
However, curiously enough, it does not seem to be directly related to the English “care.” “Care’s” Old English ancestor, “caru,” meant “sorrow,” and that has been traced to an Indo-European base meaning “cry out, scream.”
Webster’s first definitions of “care” as a noun retain this sense of woe: “a troubled or burdened state of mind; worry; concern” and “a cause of such a mental state.”
I blame uncertainty.
Maybe not anonymous
I received an e-mail from Clare Bland of Rockford, Ill., about a couple of the items I cited in last week’s column as being anonymous, according to Bartlett’s “Familiar Quotations.”
“Dictionary of Phrase and Fable” (published in 1993) attributes “keeping up with the Joneses” to New York Globe comic-strip artist Arthur R. (“Pop”) Momand, based on his “own attempts to keep up with his neighbors.”
And the “Random House Webster’s Quotationary” of 2001 cites an 1894 translation by Benjamin Jowett of “The Republic” by Plato for the line, “The true creator is necessity, which is the mother of our invention.”
Perhaps these weren’t pinned down until after the 1992 edition of Bartlett’s that I used. Maybe the Bartlett’s crew just got tired of looking.
Which leads me to conclude with this Bartlett’s entry from Agatha Christie’s autobiography:
“I don’t think necessity is the mother of invention — invention, in my opinion, arises directly from idleness, possibly also from laziness. To save oneself trouble.”
Thanks again, Clare, for the new information — and for reading the column.
Contact Barry Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.