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What's the Word:"Hate"

Hanna Shelton

Hate—the term for this installment of “What’s the Word?”—describes a sense or feeling of deep hostility. It is a feeling that has many people in its grip, particularly in our current age. The word has also become standard in our descriptions of both communication and community. The terms “hate mail,” “hate speech,” “hate groups,” and “hate crimes” may be all too familiar, but they also contain an irony: the connection and bonding suggested by the words “speech” and “group” seem to work at crosscurrents with hate, which insists on maintaining separation between people.

Maybe we should explore the origins of this word! For starters, many people are likely to define hate as an emotion or feeling—or maybe a very negative attitude toward another person. But hate actually comes from the Old English word hata, which meant something like “enemy” or “opponent.” And so the OE verb hatian similarly meant to treat someone like an opponent or a rival. That is, roughly one thousand years ago the English word had quite a different meaning than it does today. Hata is quite different from those expressions of hatred just mentioned—hate speech, hate groups, and so forth—and it does not relate very directly with an emotion or inner attitude. By the way, this older meaning comes from ancient warrior societies; the hata was a person you fought against on the battle field. Later the word came to mean something like “strife” or “enmity.” Overall, it was understood not only as the opposite of love, which is also a feeling, but the opposite of peace between two countries or peoples.

So like so many other English words, hate has made pretty big leaps and has come to take on a variety of meanings. Later in the Middle Ages the word would come to refer to intense anger, for example wrath, whether divine or human. In religious contexts, to hate something (sin, for example) meant to avoid, shun, or refrain from an action regarded as (spiritually) harmful. Nowadays we speak of “hating” a particular insect or cold pizza. There does not seem to be a deeply emotional hostility at work here. On the other hand, by hating individuals or whole groups of people—because of who they love, what they believe, or how they look—we go far beyond emotional hostility or even treating them as an adversary; we reject their very humanity.

But can we be happy with our words making such leaps in meaning if we ourselves do not make similar progress? If hate has evolved from the idea of treating someone like an opponent, to treating them as less than human, let us consider the power of a word that provides a kind of antidote to hate. Consider the word compassion, which comes from Latin (compatior) and meant “to suffer with” someone. Unlike hate, the word compassion contains within its structure (com) the idea of connection and bonding. We can once again nod to Jedi Master Yoda, since compassion is about suffering, but in the sense of alleviating that suffering rather than producing more of it. Maybe if we were to speak of compassion more frequently than we speak of hate—and indeed promote the one more than the other—we might just see some improvement in the world.

What’s the word is an occasional series produced by the Murray State University Department of English and Philosophy that explores issues of the English language that are popping up in contemporary conversations. 

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