Words have consequences; they mean things, and they always have. Human language is far from perfect, but it does a pretty good job of representing a likeness of the ideas we possess.

Language only represents ideas; it does not replicate them. It can’t because in a real sense every one of us speaks a different dialect, with certain words carrying differing connotations among cultures and often even between two individuals within the same culture. Our language is affected by our upbringing and our experience, and no two experiences are the same. So in an imperfect language what is implied is not equal to what is inferred; what is expressed is not equal to what is impressed.,

Yet language is still our best device to communicate a representation of our ideas, and we constantly seek to find common ground in the expression of our ideas – to communicate perfectly our consciousness, to have our audience infer precisely what we imply.

As an intellectual historian – one who studies systems of thought – I am convinced that understanding the history of words is crucial to understanding the languages of the past, and therefore gaining a better insight into their system of thought. We cannot pretend that we speak the same language as Americans did in the 1950s let alone Americans in the 19th century.

Most of the time this is not a problem. We can infer a fairly accurate concept of what is being communicated with a little context. But on occasion words are beneath their surfaces weighted with so much intellectual baggage that it becomes extremely burdensome to comprehend an accurate likeness of their historic implications.

An example of this is the word “right,” as in “The Bill of Rights.” The word is flung haphazardly today to describe anything from what is transcendently possessed by every individual without regard to external circumstance, to what we feel like we deserve, to simply what we want.

When opposing factions talk about “rights,” they are often speaking a completely different language without even knowing it, and so they inevitably become frustrated because neither gains an accurate representation of the ideas meant to be communicated by the other side.

Understanding that modern connotations of “rights” have differing – and sometimes even opposing – implications, can we perhaps find common ground by understanding the history behind the word? Again, an understanding of the history of the word helps inform us of the history of the idea. To gain that understanding, it’s prudent to look not only at the word’s direct progenitors, but also its uncles, cousins, sisters, and other relatives. Through the genealogy of a word, we can better deduce the concept and ideas behind its differing usages.

“Right,” whether we mean that which is consonant with justice, that which is consonant with fact, or that which is consonant with self-propriety, is ultimately derived from the Indo-European root presumed to be [Latinized] reg-. (If you pronounce it with a “rolled” or “gargled” g, you arrive at a sound halfway between the modern hard and soft g.)[1]

But it’s a long road from the Indo-European roots to its descendent, “right,” as it travels through India, Greece, Rome, France, and Germany before it arrives in England. The IE verb reg– has an ultimate meaning we can infer to mean “to set straight,” which leads us to the IE noun “a true guide, hence a potent guide, hence a chief or king.” There seems to be an implication in the noun of a straight line – fundamentally important to the development of civilization. We still see a descendant of this concept in the word and concept “ruler,” both as a tool for measuring and recording straight lines as well as one who is charged with the authority of guiding a population.

These ideas of “ruling” beg the question: ruling toward what? Where does the guide lead? Where is point B in relation to point A? And here we begin to see the transcendent questions of morality, or that which is consonant with justice, and the nascent etymological concept of “rights” emerge.

But before we get there, we can ascertain further context by looking toward India, where the emphasis on the soft-g took center stage in the form of (in grammatical terms) the patient raj (that which is ruled), and the agent raja (that which rules). We see this concept carried forward in the Indian noble title Maharaja.

From India the concept travels to Ancient Greece, where we find the word Orego, with more emphasis on the hard g. This word carries with it the concept of “that which reaches out,” or “that which stretches forth his hand.” Again, we see here the concept of both guide as an instrument and as a leader. It also carries with it a metaphorical usage (as in Thucydides and Euripides) of reaching at, grasping at, or yearning for – in other words, toward the elusive ideal state.

From Greece we land in more familiar Latin territory where the family of words flourishes, each bringing with them unique connotations, but rooted in this same concept of “ruling”. The infinitive verb is regere, and its past participle is rectus; the noun is rex, and we see its noble similarities to its counterparts in India. From rex, we derive words like regal, regalia, regnal, reign; its diminutive regulus (“little ruler”), gives us regulate and regulation. We see the concept of instrumental ruling in the past participle’s derivatives of rectify, rectangle, director, erect, rectory, and rectum (“the straight part of the large intestine”). As a concept of the ideal, we see it in words like corrigible and correct. We even see it in words like ergo – a compound of the ex (“out of”) and rego “I guide straight”, ergo “from which I rule you to this.”

These Romantic family members have descended to us in large numbers, but we have not yet seen a graphical semblance of “right” nor do we yet hear the sound we inflect when reading that word.

For that transition we head to France, where the softening of consonants and vowels seems to have been a contest. The ultra-hard g/ks in rex becomes the French roi (whence we derive the name Roy), and derivatives royal and realm. From the Latin director we see motion toward in the softened address, and in the concept of the ideal, redress (“to make straight again”).

The Old French concept of justice was reflected in the word droit, which is still used to designate the opposite of left – the starboard side of the human body designated as such because in general it is more exact, true, and capable of doing justice to objects. Hence we see the French (and English) word adroit – i.e., physically or mentally skillful.

Droit made its way into English law, especially in claims to what was due to satisfy justice or reward, still retained in the rather obscure (to American lawyers) concept of “Droits of Admiralty”. In this we see the nascent concept of rights as what is deserved.

Now it is not too far a leap to see the Old Germanic adoption of the concept in their word riht, which was derived from the more voiceless velar fricative recht, from which the concept of the Reich was also born.[2]

So as reg- traveled from India to Germany to England, it had many descendants, but each of them retaining a concept of that which is consonant, or is striving for consonance with justice and truth. In this sense, what is right, or “correct”, is also our right, or legal claim.

In this relationship between what is consonant with morality and what is consonant with legality, we see (I believe) the miscommunication between those who favor rights as government entitlements (called here “legalists”) and those who favor rights as transcendent claims of self-propriety (called here “moralists”).

The legalist will claim a right by popularity – for what has been made legal is therefore also right, and is therefore a right.

The moralist, on the other hand, might appeal to ontological justice, ontological morality, or ontological truth to therefore establish what is right and righteous, and from thence establish what is a right – i.e., the means by which we may draw nearer to perfect righteousness.

Sources: Oxford English Dictionary, Partridge’s Short Etymological Dictionary of Modern English, Various Greek, Latin, French, and Old English dictionaries.

 

 

[1] In the International Phonetic Alphabet, a close approximation is the voiced velar fricative.

[2] I appeal to the great Oxford English Dictionary in their mapping of the pronunciation here: “In Old English a strong neuter (a -stem); the prefixed form geriht i-riht n. is also commonly attested. The early Kentish form reoht (see ?. forms) shows regular breaking of short e before a velar fricative, while the regular Anglian form reht (see ?. forms) shows smoothing of the diphthong. In West Saxon, on the other hand, monophthongization and raising before a palatalized fricative followed by a dental consonant (palatal mutation) resulted in the form riht or (with laxed vowel after r ) ryht (originally only word-finally or if followed by a front vowel, but apparently soon extended analogically to such forms as genitive plural rihta ), a change that is also attested in later Kentish sources. Such forms gradually spread northwards in late Old English and early Middle English (compare Older Scots richt beside less frequent recht ).”