ille mi par esse deo videtur,
ille si fas est superare divos,
qui sedens adversus identidem te
spectat et audit
dulce ridentem …

He indeed seems like a god to me,
even to surpass (forgive me!) gods,
sitting as he does opposite you
at you over and over again
listening to your sweet smile …

Catullus 51.1-5

In this famous transformation of Sappho’s φαίνεταί μοι κῆνος ἴσος θέοισιν … [31.1], the Latin lyric poet Catullus (d. c. 54 B.C.) speaks for us to an aspect of contemporary lookism — but, I am happy to report, with an incorrect twist — and thereby dangles another interesting linguistic tale.

Our word “ism” is one of those diachronic oddities of language — the bound morph that has decided to cut itself loose from a comfortable if boring dependency on stems and venture forth boldly into the linguistic jungle as a daring loner demanding to be taken seriously in its own right and arrogating all the power it can from its community of users.  And in the last generation or so, we have certainly been more than deferential to this hoary old-timer turned smug and self-important snob with pretensions that are no longer amusing.

“Ismism” and a proliferating “isimization” has of late gotten rather out of hand, and in the process semanticised this impudent little upstart in ways it couldn’t even have dreamed of only a few centuries ago. It’s kind of like one of those rare weenie penny stocks, hustling for ages in deserved obscurity on the pink sheets, then suddenly transcending the expectations of all and making the move to the big time on a major exchange — and now everybody wants a part of this newly legitimized action and nobody cares about some murky provenience.

The vast and venerable history of “ism” as a productive and servile suffix stretches back to ‑ισμός/‑ισμά  -ismos/-isma and beyond (that is, to a “factitive,” or causative, verb formant  ‑ίζω -izō) in Greek antiquity, and the Latin loan -ismus, both of which get docked of their syntactic functors to take up life in English as just plain -ism.  We have legions (a computerized search of the OED yields close to 4,000) of fine words with this suffix, like baptism, pessimism, antagonism and so forth — many of them Greek or Latin in origin, but even more of them neologisms (!) in our own language.

Apparently the earliest record of an -ism word in English comes from the 13th century, and ism itself as an unbound morph (i.e., an independent free-standing ‘word’) is first attested from about 1680.  Yet the huge majority of these words are relatively modern, having started to pour into the language either as borrowings from Greek and Latin or as learned formations in the course of the 19th and 20th centuries — and the flood has clearly not abated as of this writing.  Indeed, I’d venture that precisely because it’s been such a successful survivor for going on 5,000 years now in its allotted capacity, -ism feels justified in putting on the airs alluded to above.

You can, as it were, ism (see, I can even ‘verb’ the ‘noun’ that was a mere functor not that long ago) anything in English today, and chances are that people will pretty much understand what you are talking about.  While the ism in such words as criticism (as in the literary kind) and magnetism would seem to be morally neutral, many such formations carry a depreciatory coding, as in alcoholism, voyeurism, botulism or Stalinism — but not, clearly, in Buddhism or syllogism (first known in English from 1398).  It is the negative aspect of this puffed-up little guy that seems to have come to dominate in many of the barbaric dysphemisms that roll off contemporary tongues to suggest anything that is bad, illegal and/or incorrect.

The one I hate most is lookism (which the OED dates to the 1960s), an ugly bastard of a word hijacked into trying to neutralize boorish behavior by twisting the modern root meaning into something like not only “discriminating against a person because of her appearance” but also “rude and offensive staring.”  Does even a piece of semantic nouveau trash like ism deserve this outrageous pejoration — much less the sweet and helpless Germanic isolate that has given us our very beautiful English word “look”?

[Here is an interesting note: lookism in Wikipedia.]

When Catullus wanted to confound the count of kisses he and his Lesbia had given each other (Catullus 5), he played off a meaning of “look at” in Latin which also suggests the look of the evil eye, or “dirty looks,” or envy — the latter itself ultimately but indirectly derived from Latin invidia (“a looking, seeing against”) by way of Old French (and cf. our English more modern derivative “invidious”).  In poem 51, the woman whom Catullus represents as speaking knows, as did Catullus and many another an ancient lover, what part of the anatomy it all begins with – not down there but up here at the eyes that cast that first unforgettable look across a crowded room or, as Nat King Cole so smoothly crooned the amatory acrostic, “L is for the way you look at me, O is for the only one I see …”

Lucky lads and ladies that they lived long before the look of love became felonious!

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One Response to Look!

  1. heather says:


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