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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.
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.
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.
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.