In which Harry demonstrates his pedantic soul

A local free magazine that came through the door includes a few hundred words of Buddhist-inspired wisdom. The column starts:

As a child, were you encouraged to aim for perfection*?

The footnote at the bottom of the page explains:

The word * ‘perfection’ comes originally from the Greek ‘telios’ meaning ‘completeness’, ‘purpose’

The first thing that bothered me about that was — how much of a tin ear for language do you need to believe that ‘perfect’ could possibly derive from ‘telios’?

Even if ‘perfect’ did come from a Greek word meaning ‘completeness’, ‘purpose’ — how would it prove anything? What difference would the Greek root mean to a discussion in English? Words change their meaning. Over two thousand years and a shift from one language to another, the meanings can change really quite a lot.

In fact it derives (via Old French) from the Latin perfectus ‘completed,’ from the verb perficere, from per– ‘through, completely’ + facere ‘do.’ The outlines of which I guessed, although the details came from a dictionary.

A bit of googling reveals that there is a connection between ‘perfect’ and ‘telios’, though. Teleios (τελειος) is indeed a Greek word for perfect, and it’s regularly translated as perfectus in the Vulgate and ‘perfect’ in the KJV (I did check, but you’ll have to take my word for it).

However, although teleios does mean ‘perfect’ and ‘complete’, it doesn’t apparently mean ‘purpose’. But it’s derived from telos (τέλος), which means ‘purpose’ or ‘aim’ (hence ‘teleology’); presumably because something which is complete is something which has achieved its aim.

So we can reconstruct the idea as it was presumably originally told to her:

“In Greek, the word for ‘perfect’ meant something which had fulfilled its purpose.”

As I said, arguments from etymology are daft anyway; but at least this version has a certain fortune-cookie aphoristic quality to it. It approaches the idea of ‘perfection’ from a slightly different angle. The version in the column

The word * ‘perfection’ comes originally from the Greek ‘telios’ meaning ‘completeness’, ‘purpose’

is not only obviously false, it also garbles the point of the original observation. How could you write that down and not think “hang on a minute, I don’t think I’ve got that quite right”?

2 Comments

  1. 14 July 2006 at 1:01 pm | Permalink

    Thank you, O Harry, for keeping pedantry alive and well in this cybernetic world.

    (Go on. Deconstruct cybernetic. I double dare you.

    I’m trying to redeem its meaning here.)

  2. Harry
    14 July 2006 at 8:52 pm | Permalink

    How interesting. Cybernetics is \”the science of communications and automatic control systems in both machines and living things”, from Greek kubernētēs ‘steersman,’ from kubernan ‘to steer.’

    Hence robotics hence cybermen hence cyberspace and everything that followed. People understood ‘cyber’ as a prefix [like hyper?] and applied it accordingly, even though originally it wasn’t.

    I have no interest in ‘redeeming’ anything, I’m just interested in how the current usage came to be. And the use of ‘cyber’ as a prefix meaning something like ‘computery’ strikes me as perfectly reasonable.

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