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A Word Whose Time Has Come

Joseph S. Salemi

This article announces a new coinage in English vocabulary. It provides the etymology, definition, and pronunciation for the proposed word and its derivatives, along with a brief account of the reasons why the coinage has become necessary.

It is difficult for lexical innovations to win acceptance, and that is as it should be. English, like every fully developed language with a canon of literature behind it, has a more than sufficient vocabulary stock for all common purposes. Apart from specialized terms for new inventions or advances in technology, a language has little need to come up with neologisms. This is especially the case when speech addresses ordinary day-to-day existence and the perennial patterns of human interaction. We do not require new words for love, hate, jealousy, friendship, or exploitation, since the old ones do just fine. In fact, one mark of an inadequate writer is the urge to create artificial or nonce terms rather than make use of the perfectly functional vocabulary inherited in his native tongue. The habit of coinage might even be called infantile in the strict sense -- a writer with a penchant for verbal novelties is like a baby learning to talk, who babbles out hybridized solecisms in his attempt to express meaning.

Having said this, it is also fair to point out that occasionally a coinage or neologism is not only appropriate but even demanded by a new condition or situation. Words like brainwash, ideology, alienation, and genocide were all created to address specific developments of modern life that, while not absolutely new, became peculiarly potent presences in the twentieth century. These realities loomed large, so we fashioned the words to name them.

Another reality hangs over our world, and it has gone nameless for too long. I have watched this evil thing gain power and momentum over the last thirty years, and although some observers have commented on and even condemned its various symptoms, no one has yet recognized that these symptoms are all manifestations of a common pathology. This pathology is running through society with a truly pandemic speed and virulence, and yet precisely because it is so widespread it has escaped general notice and attention. Like the air we breathe, it is now a condition of existence that no one ordinarily thinks about. The pathology has fostered a habit of mind so rootedly inveterate in millions of persons that not to be in its grip is often remarked upon as a sign of oddness or eccentricity.

The thing that I am talking about is ethopathy, and that is the term I have coined to name it. Let me begin attributively, by giving the characteristics of ethopathy.

Ethopathy is a state of mind or a personal disposition that is marked by a profound need to do something stupid, indecorous, or palpably absurd out of an unshakable emotional conviction as to its necessity. A telltale symptom of ethopathy is a desperate desire to be au courant, fashionable, and trendy -- even if chasing these things means gross discomfort, ruinous expense, and personal abasement. Another infallible sign of ethopathy is a kind of frantic restlessness and disquiet that drives one to pursue idiotic courses of behavior with a tenacity that disregards all reasonable limits, as if one's very life depended on acting like a total fool.

Here are fifteen examples of ethopathic behavior:

  • A housewife who subsists on tasteless, low-caloric food out of a desperate fear of gaining weight as she grows older is suffering from ethopathy.
  • A high-level executive who ruins his health and his personal finances to snort cocaine, not because he likes it but because he wants to be accepted in a peer group that does so, is suffering from ethopathy.
  • A man who, while not the victim of any debilitating psychic disorder, nevertheless spends large chunks of his free time and discretionary income going to mental therapy sessions is suffering from ethopathy.
  • Apartment-bound urbanites who buy expensive and improbably contrived devices to exercise on for endless hours in their living rooms are suffering from ethopathy.
  • A middle-class teenager who disfigures her body with tattoos and bizarre piercings out of a need to look like a déclassé punk-rock groupie is suffering from ethopathy.
  • Persons who go to operas, concerts, ballets, and museums not for their personal enjoyment but simply to be perceived by others as "cultured," are suffering from ethopathy.
  • A health-obsessed neurotic who runs out to buy a new vitamin pill after seeing it hyped in the Science Times as something wonderful is suffering from ethopathy.
  • Women who insist on being trained as firemen, paratroopers, and fighter pilots just as a way of making some ideological point are suffering from ethopathy.
  • Moralistic types who obsess about other people's use of drugs, alcohol, prostitutes, or pornography, and who go to extraordinary lengths to make sure that these people are prosecuted by the law, are suffering from ethopathy.
  • An English professor who destroys his students' natural love of literature by forcing them to read jargon-clotted and tendentious literary theory is suffering from ethopathy.
  • Persons who are constantly trumpeting their status as "victims" of abuse, neglect, maltreatment, oppression, or discrimination, and who then demand special treatment or indulgence because of it, are suffering from ethopathy.
  • Hypersensitive types who rush out of the room when they catch a whiff of cologne or cigarette smoke, and then make accusatory whines about pulmonary dangers, are suffering from ethopathy.
  • A yuppie poseur who ostentatiously uses a cellular phone in public places as a means of impressing strangers is suffering from ethopathy.
  • A computer nerd whose eyes turn large and liquid while he rhapsodizes about the newest processor is suffering from ethopathy.
  • A young man who walks the streets with a tape-player plugged into both ears so that not a spare second will go by without pop music passing through his head is suffering from ethopathy.

I could go on forever giving examples of ethopathy, but it is now time to generalize inductively. In every one of these cases, the person suffering from ethopathy evinces a devotion to a bizarre, ritualized behavior pattern that strikes non-ethopathic persons as meaningless or beside the point. And yet the sufferer can under no circumstances be made to see that his behavior is sick; he will have a powerful sense of the moral correctness of his actions, and of the obligation to behave as he is doing regardless of personal discomfort or untoward consequences.

At base ethopathy is a religious impulse, although ethopaths will adduce countless "rational" reasons why one should exercise incessantly, or pop nutrient pills, or find one's "inner child," or buy the latest and most uselessly complex computer. This religious impulse has no specific divinity as an object, but it manifests the same awe, dread, and terror that are part of the original semantics of the word religio in Latin. Ethopaths do what they do for two crucial reasons: they think they ought to do it, and they are afraid not to do it. Many ethopaths are secularists and worldlings, but in regard to their pet obsessions they behave exactly like frightened animists who will do anything to placate a fetish-idol or a sorcerer.

The deeply religious nature of ethopathy can be seen in the following series of quotations, which I report precisely as I have heard them spoken over several years. I have correlated the quotes with the religious attitudes that they illustrate.

Religious Attitude

Ethopathic Quotations

Solicitude for precisely performed rituals: "You have to take exactly six different vitamin supplements."

"It's essential to do fifty deep knee bends each morning."
Horror at acts of profanation: "Oh my God, not red meat!"

"How dare you blow secondary smoke while my children are here?"
Humorlessness: "I don't find sexist jokes like that to be funny, mister!"

"Why are you laughing at my new ten-billion megabyte PC?"
Dependence on groupthink: "But no one is eating refined sugar anymore!"

"People won't sit with you at the lunch table if you say things like that."
Flagrant superstition: "They say that this new South American vegetable extract can regenerate dead brain cells!"

"My computer has definitely improved my prose style."
Use of arcane language: "Group therapy sessions will help you reconstitute those interactive skills in personal relationships that past psychic trauma may have caused to atrophy."

"Marxist and other post-imperialist critiques allow us to deconstruct the racist and colonialist substructures of the patriarchal canon."
Invidious distinction between the damned and the elect: "Smart people eat macrobiotic meals exclusively."

"The decent, humane, and caring segment of the population supports animal rights."
Hunger for conversion experience and exalted states: "I used to be cynical like that, but going through Primal Scream restored my faith in positive thinking."

"You can't believe the high you get from sustained jogging!"
Adulation of gurus: "Nobody really understood the nature of literature until Derrida came along."

"Sally Jessy Raphaël saved my life."

Another sign of ethopathy's religious foundation is its intolerance of any intellectual questioning of its received tenets. Religion rests on powerful emotional reflexes that go far deeper than discursive argument. Indeed, arguing with ethopaths over their obsessive symptoms is mostly useless, and often dangerous. Try to convince a middle-aged secretary that driving thirty miles a day on her stationary bicycle will not appreciably enhance her marriage prospects or her lifespan, and be prepared for an explosion. Tell a yuppie twit that spending half his salary to live in Chelsea or Soho is patently insane when he could dwell cheaply and more comfortably in a non-trendy neighborhood, and he'll punch you out. Explain to a computer geek that the only tools one needs to write are paper, pen, and perhaps a typewriter, and he'll glare at you in pitying contempt. In each case the ethopath is impervious to rational appeals, and doggedly sticks to the True Faith with all the stubbornness of a Breton peasant.

Consider the vegetarian freak who makes a scene at a restaurant over the presence of animal fat in his dessert. Or the environmentalist fanatic who stops a major dam's construction to save some obscure snail species. Or the fundamentalist busybody who threatens a boycott of the local 7-Eleven because it carries Playboy magazine. Each of them is sick in a different way, but they have in common an ironclad devotion to an absurdity, and a need to live out the consequences of that absurdity regardless of their own discomfort and inconvenience or that of other persons. The modern world is infested with these infantile whiners, who make their own lives and the lives of those around them miserable. Our lexicon needs the word ethopathy to pin down, once and for all, the shared psychic disorder that unites all these various pathologies. After the disease has been recognized and named, we can begin to research its etiology and possible cure.

Someone might say: "These people are just silly and self-absorbed -- we don't need a new word for their behavior." I say we do need a new word, because silliness and self-absorption have become so ubiquitous and unremarkable today that we have lost all sense of their pathological abnormality. Since the 1960s, our worship of the bogus ideals of "authenticity" and "self-fulfillment" has led us to accept as valid a whole range of modes of behavior and courses of action that a century ago would have been recognized as patently lunatic. A friend tells you that she's spending several thousand dollars to pass the summer at a health spa, where she'll be kept to a macrobiotic diet and a spartan regimen of exercise, and no one laughs out loud. Someone else announces that, at the age of forty-two, she's decided to take singing lessons and try for a career in opera, and nobody tells her to sober up and stop dreaming. An acquaintance asserts that a new self-help book put out by Simon and Schuster and hyped on the Oprah Winfrey show really contains the key to total human happiness, and none of us advise him to get his head examined. In the not-too-distant past, a community of family, friends, and neighbors would have laughed such propositions into oblivion -- today we have all been conditioned to receive them as legitimate options and possibilities.

It might be objected that ethopathy is simply a form of mass hysteria and mindless me too ism manifesting itself in a range of predictable, politically correct lifestyle choices. However, ethopathy should be distinguished from mere faddishness and craze mongering. An ephemeral fashion that sweeps society, such as hula hoops, bellbottom trousers, or cornrowed hair is not necessarily ethopathic or even harmful. These are just momentary enthusiasms that come and go, no different from imperial Rome's passion for steam baths or eighteenth century France's predilection for powdered wigs. No one takes such fads seriously, not even the people who enjoy them. Ethopaths, however, take what they do very seriously. The thing that differentiates an ethopathic obsession from a modish vagary is psychic compulsion rooted in a crypto religious mandate. Hair styles and skirt lengths are ultimately insignificant -- they are based on nothing more important than the caprice of some couturier. But feeding oneself on hideous health food, or paying thousands to some quack therapist, or spending endless hours on a treadmill, or ranting about sexist pronouns, or piercing one's tongue with a silver stud, or getting apoplectic over pornography, or hounding cigarette smokers out of the room, or speaking deconstructionist jargon, are all more than fads: they are pathological infatuations based on what in German would be called a Geistesstörung -- that is, a mental disorder. And unlike fads, these ethopathic disorders have a pernicious effect on society at large, for those in their grip believe passionately that what they are doing is virtuous and proper, and hence prescriptive for others.

Leisure time and a lot of discretionary income make ethopathy possible, plausible, and of course profitable to the array of institutions and corporations that thrive on its continued growth. The number of commercial concerns that are enriched by the spread of ethopathic delusions is legion: publishing conglomerates, drug companies, computer firms, health food stores, hordes of lawyers and physicians, exercise equipment manufacturers, New Age religions, major foundations, the electronic media, governmental bureaucracies, extensive strata of print journalism, and most of all that festering core of ethopathy, the American university. All of these profitable businesses grow in power and wealth as ethopathy infects more and more individuals, and naturally they have a vested interest in seeing the pathology prosper. In fact, an economic history of the last three decades could be written just researching the ways in which American corporations and their academic toadies have fostered the spread of lucrative ethopathic disorders such as vitamin obsession, avant-garde posturing, health food mania, fake art, computer worship, multiculturalism, therapy fads, and self-help quackery.

In a society where most persons had to work vigorously to make a living, none of the above-mentioned absurdities would have a chance to develop. Affluent, highly advanced cultures such as those of Western Europe and North America are the petrie dishes wherein ethopathy grows and flourishes. One does not normally find ethopathy in places like rural China, equatorial Africa, or the Amazon basin, where persons must still maintain a certain balance and sanity in order to survive the struggle for existence. However, as other parts of the globe begin to attain levels of development comparable to the West, we can expect the disorder to break out in full force there.

For all these reasons, a coinage is necessary -- one whose very novelty will force us to see the increasingly sick behavior patterns around us with a renewed awareness of their absurdity and bizarrerie. That word is ethopathy and its derivatives, the etymology of which I shall now address.

The first part of the word ethopathy derives from the Greek noun ethos, which means the manners, habits, disposition, and character of a person. A man's ethos is the sum of his defining patterns of behavior, the things that he does and says which give an indication of his innermost essence. The word has been borrowed directly into English with little change of meaning, though in English ethos is generally used in reference to a nation, a cultural group, or a movement rather than to an individual.

I use the prefix etho- to mean patterns of behavior. This needs no explanation, as it is in conformity with related borrowings from the Greek such as ethics and ethical.

The second part of the word comes from the Greek noun pathos, a word arising from the verb paschein with an aorist infinitive pathein. This verb means to suffer, to endure, to receive an impression from without, to be the passive object of another's action. All derive from a Proto-Indo-European *kwenth-, which meant to suffer. Pathos in Greek can mean suffering, passion, or feeling. This word has also been borrowed directly into English, but in our language the word has come to mean the quality that arouses pity or sympathy, or those feelings themselves, and it tends to be used only in a literary context.

I use the suffix -pathy to mean sickness or disorder. Here some explanation is necessary.

The use of the suffixes -pathy and -path to create nouns has gone in three distinct directions in the history of English word-formation. This is due to the multiple semantics of the Greek noun pathos, which can mean suffering, passion or feeling. Moreover, since all these meanings have in common the notion of heightened perception, this fourth idea is also noticeable in some -pathy derivatives.

In words like telepathy and telepath, the idea of perception dominates. Telepathy is perception across barriers or distances without instruments; a telepath is a person capable of such perception. But in the word empathy, the idea of feeling is central to the term's semantics. Empathy is a deep understanding of another person's feelings and thoughts, marked by a closeness that allows one to share in them. An empath (the term is rare) would be someone skilled in this sort of understanding.

However, in words like psychopath, neuropath, and sociopath, the idea of suffering or sickness is primary. A psychopath is a deeply disturbed and deranged lunatic, often dangerously violent, who suffers from a severe mental disorder. A neuropath is someone suffering from a nervous condition. And a sociopath is someone suffering from a serious inability to adapt to the norms of human companionship and behavior. Psychopathy, neuropathy, and sociopathy are the respective conditions that blight the lives of these persons.

By a curious twist, -pathy and -path sometimes also mean the treatment of the diseased condition, and the doctor who treats. Thus osteopathy is the analysis and treatment of various bone disorders, and the osteopath is the doctor who specializes in this field. Homeopathy and homeopath conform to the same pattern. It may very well be, however, that a noun like osteopath is really a shortened form of osteopathologist.

In any case, the proposed neologisms ethopathy and ethopath are modelled on those existing words where the idea of suffering and sickness predominates. Hence an ethopath (like a psychopath or a sociopath) is a person afflicted with a disorder, and ethopathy is the name of that disorder. Ethopathic is the normally derived adjective, but it may also be used substantively, on the pattern of adjectives such as anorectic and lunatic. Thus ethopath and ethopathic can be synonyms.

The adverb ethopathically is also a natural development in this same series.

Are these terms maledictive? This is hard to answer. All words that refer to an intrinsically unpleasant reality tend to become pejoratives in the course of time. A word like neurotic began as a perfectly neutral description of a psychic condition, and can still be used as such, but today it is often maledictive in its connotations, e.g., I won't work for that damned neurotic. The word retarded, when referring to mental disability, was originally just a descriptive term; today it is almost always a pejorative and is therefore avoided by the medical profession. The sentence What are you, retarded or something? is now frightfully maledictive. So too, the coinages ethopathy and ethopath may start out as purely taxonomic, but I am certain that in the eventuality of their being accepted into our lexicon they will soon become useful and effective pejoratives. And we can expect to hear sentences like "You're a goddamned ethopath!" or "What kind of ethopathic insanity is this?" or "He's the most flagrant example of ethopathy since Michael Jackson."

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Definitions for the coinage ethopathy and its derivative forms are presented below. Each definition is followed by a usage sample. Accented vowels indicate syllable stress.


ethópathy noun 1. a systematic pattern of disorder in a human being's behavior or way of life, manifesting itself in one or more varying forms of delusion, obsession, or absurd trend-chasing. Usage sample: Ethopathy is rampant in North America.  2. any particular manifestation of this disorder, such as dieting, careerism, mindless exercise, multiculturalism, psychobabble, animal-rights activism, pharmaceutic addiction, gadget-worship, and the like. Usage sample: Worshipping one's computer is a common form of ethopathy.

éthopath noun a person suffering from any one of the forms of ethopathy. Usage sample: It is a mark of the ethopath to have no inner direction.

ethopáthic adjective pertaining or relating to ethopathy or ethopaths. Usage sample: It is an ethopathic delusion to believe that vitamins are a panacea.

ethopáthic noun a synonym for ethopath. Usage sample: Academia and health-spas are filled with ethopathics.

ethopáthically adverb in a manner appropriate to ethopathy or ethopaths. Usage sample: Her politically correct euphemisms showed that she was ethopathically inclined.

Copyright © 2005 by Joseph S. Salemi

This article was first published in Maledicta 13: The International Journal of Verbal Aggression. Volume XIII, pp. 91-102. Published July 15, 2005 by Maledicta Press, PO Box 14123, Santa Rosa, California 95402, USA.