PASSION AND VERBICIDE


If there is a single word used too much in college essays, and especially in “why” essays, it is “passion”. Mostly it is used to express that the speaker has a high degree of interest in something, as if it were a synonym for interest or attachment. And this isn’t wrong. It’s right there in the dictionary, after all. But “passion” has older, more colorful, and more distinct meanings, tied up with its etymology and still visible in its use in modern Christian vernacular. I think you should consider these meanings before using the word, because the word’s historical baggage and alternative meanings help determine its connotations, the meanings that your readers will often feel regardless of the meanings that you intend.

The Latin word passio, the ancestor to the English passion, is normally equivalent to “suffering.” It comes into English with this meaning and so the word is often used to denote the torture, suffering, and execution of Jesus Christ. It is also often used to describe strong emotions (the “passions”). It might seem odd that a word for “emotion” is linked to suffering (or not, if so, bravo) in this way, but we’ll see the connection shortly.

Down the etymological and conceptual rabbit hole we go. Passio itself was used in the same sense as and to translate the Greek pathos, which is most broadly: “an incident” or “something that happens”, but whose general sense is better understood, I think, from derived English words like pathology (the study of disease) or pathognomonic (indicating the presence of a specific disease).

The word suffering is itself from the Latin suffero, which means “to carry something from beneath”, and by extension, “to carry a burden, endure a hardship, etc.” We can see its relationship with a word like pathos if we consider the positive or neutral meanings of both passio and pathos, epitomized in the word “incident.” Incident comes from Latin in (on) + cadere (to fall): incidents are things that “fall on us” (in + cado) which we must then “carry from underneath” (suffero). This is the connection of suffering to emotion. We are not generally the authors of our emotions, rather, they are happenings that we undergo (notice the imagery). Basically, in English, Latin, and Greek when we experience things occurring in a sort of PASSIve way, by luck or chance (OE: hap) we tend to conjure up images of things falling on us and us carrying (or sometimes being crushed by) them, with all the associated discomfort and pain (such images are embedded in the linguistic history of these words, anyway).
Now consider words like interest and enthusiasm. These can be used to describe the same sort of thing as passion, but they do so in a different way and with a different linguistic patrimony. “Interest” comes from the Latin intereo, to go among or be lost. The activity of this word makes a contrast with the passivity of words like passion, suffering, incident, undergoing, befalling, and happening. “Enthusiasm”, comes from the Greek enthousiazw, meaning “to be possessed by a God, to be in ecstasy, to be rapt.” Although this is a passive concept, notice how it is almost opposite of “passion” in every other way. To be “filled with a god” is to be taken to ecstasy. “To be rapt” is to be carried or transported, in contrast to the images of carrying burdens that are associated with passion and suffering. No doubt there are intersections. In certain situations we can mix and match the two worlds, for example, by saying that someone “has been transported by passion”. But the general point stands.
The point is that interest, enthusiasm and passion all live in different conceptual spaces, and the first two are quite distant from the 3rd. Interest and enthusiasm don’t really have anything to do with suffering, falling, carrying.
To quote somebody or other, etymology isn’t destiny. However, words do have specific connotations and coherences. Ultimately, usage is the reason why a word means this or that, but there are historical reasons for word usage. Good chunks of this history are present in etymology, which is why etymological understanding remains helpful for understanding the connotations and ancillary meanings our words carry along with them.

This is the first reason why you should consider using words other than “passion” to describe your interests. For historical reasons, if your reader is sensitive and what you’re describing as a passion is not something that you’ve ever really suffered for or that you could credibly suffer for (if it is merely an interest), then the word will feel wrong. Even if your reader can’t quite put his or her finger on why. If they are religious or have been influenced by religion, they might recoil at such a casual use of such a loaded word. The problem isn’t the power or intensity of the word. Remember “enthusiasm.” The idea of divine possession carried along by this word’s history is a very intense one. The problem with using “passion” is the manner of intensity and the baggage that comes along with it. It might take a little bit of work, but unless you’re talking about a very specific kind of interest, you’re better off using a word other than passion to talk about it. Although, I concede, you are technically within your rights to use the word as a synonym for strong interest.
There is another reason why we shouldn’t use passion except where you have suffered or would suffer, but this is long enough. See part II.

Justin Shelby