Friday, August 14, 2015

A Surprise in the Dictionary

Today I was wondering where the word “victim” came from.

Part of the Right’s argument against the Left is that progressives are always trying to turn people into victims (usually of oppression), while some on the Left point out that it appears to be the Right that is constantly claiming victimhood (of religious persecution for their anti-gay beliefs, for instance).

Victim. No one wants to be one, or especially to be seen as one. We are all the agents of our own lives. We don’t want pity. Some of us want justice for something that was done to us, or even vengeance, but not pity.

Appealing to that need for agency, as opposed to victimhood, is one of the Right’s strengths. It’s convenient that it keeps people who have been oppressed or victimized from trying to right that wrong or even make sure lots of people know about it.

Anyway, back to the derivation of the word. I thought it would be related to “victory,” which if I remember correctly comes from the Latin victus or “victor,” in turn, from a root meaning “to conquer.”

Well, knock me over with a feather, but “victim” doesn’t derive directly from anything to do with victory or being conquered. Instead, it comes from victima which specifically meant an animal that was sacrificed in a religious ceremony. According to (my favorite quick etymology site), it was originally used in its present form in the 15th century:

"living creature killed and offered as a sacrifice to a deity or supernatural power," from Latin victima "person or animal killed as a sacrifice." Perhaps distantly connected to Old English wig "idol," Gothic weihs "holy," German weihen "consecrate" (compare Weihnachten "Christmas") on notion of "a consecrated animal." Sense of "person who is hurt, tortured, or killed by another" is recorded from 1650s; meaning "person oppressed by some power or situation" is from 1718. Weaker sense of "person taken advantage of" is recorded from 1781.
So victims used to have it a lot worse, since they were, by definition, always dead. I guess we should be glad of the “weaker sense” since it leaves us alive.

But the connection to being sacrificed for another cause makes me think, once again, of The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. Unwilling, unacknowledged sacrifice is a poor basis for a free society.

1 comment:

Gina said...

Excellent point. I would have picked victus also. Very interesting.