What’s your grief, and how are you coping with it? Perhaps you suffer from climate grief, a term that may have been coined in 2007, by the authors of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, to describe the despair and depression people experience when they contemplate the climate crisis. Maybe you console yourself by eating, which may result in what Germans call kummerspeck (literally “grief fat”).
Or maybe you, like New York Times opinion columnist Michelle Goldberg, are experiencing democracy grief: not merely “anxiety and anger” but also “a demoralizing degree of fear, even depression” that—as one psychologist put it to Goldberg—“the institutions that we rely on to protect us from a dangerous individual might fail.”
How Democracies Die (2018). by Harvard professors Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, who warn of the “gradual chipping away of democratic institutions” that makes it “harder and harder to dislodge the incumbent [elected official] by democratic means.”
In modern English, grief is associated with death, literal or figurative. But it wasn’t always so. In Middle English, grief could mean any sort of hardship, suffering, or injury; the word comes to us, ultimately, from Latin gravis (grave, heavy), through Old French gref. Grief-stricken sounds ancient, but the OED dates it only from 1905. Grief counsel(l)or and grief therapy first appeared in print in the early 1960s. Good grief!—an expression of surprise or dismay—is much older than the “Peanuts” character Charlie Brown, who uttered it often: It’s been dated to 1912.
I’d lazily assumed that grief was linguistically related to grève, the French word for a workers’ strike (which could, after all, stem from a grievance). Mais non! Grève is a toponym; it comes from Place de la Grève, a square in the 4th Arrondissement of Paris, on the right bank of the Seine, “where unemployed factory workers would go to make themselves available for work” (Wikipedia). Grève meant (and still means, in addition to “strike”) “sand”—it’s a cognate of English gravel. After 1802, the Place de la Grève became the Place de l'Hôtel de Ville (City Hall Plaza). As for French grief, it’s chagrin, which is also a word in English—I wrote about it last year—with an interesting history.
It’s curious, to me anyway, that the major European languages use unrelated words for grief: Italian dolore or afflizione, German kummer (literally “obstruction”—it’s a cognate of cumber as in cumbersome and encumber), Spanish pena (OK, sometimes also dolor; both words imply “pain” as well as “sorrow”). All of these words have a metaphorical quality, as though we can’t directly name the specific kind of sadness that’s a response to great loss: We have to superstitiously euphemize it.
By the way, after discovering the story of grève, I looked into other European words for strike. English strike comes from a word that meant “to smooth,” which seems odd until you consider the nautical term strike the sails (to lower them and make them smooth against the mast). Spanish huelga is related to, of all things, Latin follicare, which means “to breathe” (many Latin words that began with F begin in Spanish with H); the verb holgar means “to be idle,” I suppose because when you’re idle you’re just sitting around taking up air. (For more on these words, see the delightfully named blog Le Cul Entre Deux Chaises. For more on holgar specifically, see Spanish Skulduggery.) Italian is the most straightforward: sciopero comes from Latin ex-operare “not working.”
One final note: I read How Democracies Die this year as part of my own democracy-grief therapy. It’s clear, thorough, dispassionate, readable, and—while not exactly uplifting—a valuable perspective on where we are and where we could end up.