Wednesday, May 14, 2014

I'm Not Proud

Why do we use the word proud the way we do?

  • I'm proud to be an American.
  • Son, I'm proud of you for getting into such a great college (or doing so well on that test).
  • Proud parent of a [school name] honor student
What does it mean, and where did it come from?

First, a moment of dictionary recitation.

Proud: Middle English from Old English for proud, probably from Old French words meaning capable, good, valiant. From Late Latin prode meaning advantage, advantageous, a back formation from the Latin prodesse -- to be advantageous -- from pro-, prod- (for, in favor) + esse (to be).

Definitions: Feeling or showing pride: as a) having or displaying excessive self-esteem b) much pleased: EXULTANT c) having proper self-respect 2 a) marked by stateliness: MAGNIFICENT b) giving reason for pride: GLORIOUS

Pride (which derives from proud, how's that for circularity): 1 the quality or state of being proud as a) inordinate self-esteem: CONCEIT b) a reasonable or justifiable self-respect c) delight or elation arising from some act, possession, or relationship <parental pride> 2 proud or disdainful behavior or treatment: DISDAIN 3 a) ostentatious display [plus other meanings less germane, for instance, pride of the litter and pride of lions]

The Online Etymology Dictionary has this to say:
Meaning "elated by some act, fact, or thing" is from mid-13c. To do (someone) proud attested by 1819. Related: Proudness…. The sense of "have a high opinion of oneself," not found in Old French, might reflect the Anglo-Saxons' opinion of the Norman knights who called themselves "proud." Old Norse pruðr, probably from the same French source, had only the sense "brave, gallant, magnificent, stately" (compare Icelandic pruður, Middle Swedish prudh, Middle Danish prud). Likewise a group of "pride" words in the Romance languages...are borrowings from Germanic, where they had positive senses (Old High German urgol "distinguished").

Most Indo-European languages use the same word for "proud" in its good and bad senses, but in many the bad sense seems to be the earlier one.
How it's used

Aside from its semi-archaic meanings (such as a proud [stately] ship or a proud tradition), there seem to be two primary meanings in use today, and my discomfort comes from their divergence. One is a kind of generic state of being very pleased while the other has negative connotations of disdainfulness and vanity. (For instance, what other noun than pride can you put after the adjective overweening?)

Maybe the folks who use proud to describe how they feel about their country are using it in that generic way: I'm glad to be an American, I'm glad to live in America. That wouldn't bother me so much, although it still seems a bit narrow-minded unless you've traveled a bit and have something to compare it to.

I suspect, though, there's more going on than that simple expression of happiness with a place, person, or outcome. The connotation of excessive self-esteem is strong in the American English usage of proud.

Also, how can you be proud of something that's an accident of birth, such as the country you were born into? Or of something you didn't do -- your child's achievement?

I know what I'm saying may seem unfeeling -- I do feel connection and love for the places I'm from; I just wouldn't call that feeling pride. I love my daughter and am amazed by what she can do, but proud isn't the word for it.

Maybe pride is okay when used to talk about an accomplishment of your own or with a group, what about that? Does the word make sense there?


But even then I feel uncomfortable with it, as though there is a better word, one that's less...unexamined. My heart swells with emotion when I recall group efforts I've been part of, and I think that's evolution talking. People who are wired to feel positively about group participation are descended from ancestors who were more likely to survive in tough times. Makes sense.

But is that really pride? It's belonging, camaraderie, accomplishment. Those are valuable things. Pride doesn't get at any of that. It seems the antithesis of humble because it's all about me and mine, and only about us and ours if we are contrasted with them.

I can live without the word in my vocabulary.

1 comment:

Unknown said...

This is so right