Writing and Words: Reclaiming “Patriarchy” and “Human”

My apologies for the radio silence in this space. I've been on the road for a writing and speaking trip. The stimulus of new people and new places enlarges and enriches my thinking and dreaming, and refills my creative well. But the travel tires me out more than it used to, I think partly because "home," my place in the sagebrush country of northwest Wyoming, is so deeply right and restorative for me. Being away from that nourishing place costs more energy than I expected.

While I've been on the road, I've been pondering the next book. (Bless the Birds is on my agent's desk now, and I hear that it's coming to the top of her reading stack.) What's ahead for me is a book of narrative non-fiction that I'm calling "Weeding Yellowstone." It's my long-imagined plant book, a book I began researching a year ago November on my transformative fellowship at the Women's International Study Center in Santa Fe. 

As I ponder, I've also been thinking about words, and in particular, the words we use to define ourselves and also draw boundaries between us. The word that has really stuck in my craw lately is "patriarchy," in the sense the Oxford English Dictionary defines it, as "a system of society or government in which men hold the power and women are largely excluded from it." 

I cringe whenever I hear the word. My reaction is visceral, like fingernails scraping a chalkboard, like something filing my nerve endings raw, as if the word itself is antithetical to my cells. Which isn't surprising, I suppose, since I am female, and I am #MeToo. I have known supportive and wonderful men, and supportive and wonderful institutions, and I have known and worked for those who prefer their women subservient, sometimes horribly so. 

The other day, in the midst of an extended email conversation with a friend about living in a patriarchal culture, I thought, I wonder where this word comes from. What its backstory is. Whether we are using it as it was originally intended. 

Words are abstractions, symbols for what we want to convey when we can't just grunt and point to something real and tangible. Words conjure pictures in our minds, emotions, smells, sounds, textures, actions. Words are not, however, real. You can't eat a word, touch a word, or wrestle with a word (except metaphorically!). 

We define words by common consent, agreeing more or less on what these verbal sounds and written combinations of letters mean. Those definitions are codified in dictionaries, in print or online. We also informally add connotations, shades of meaning, or slang, street-meanings. 

Those definitions and informal usages change over time, giving us a kind of history of where a particular word or group of words came from. Which is why I was curious about patriarchy. Had it always meant a culture so oppressive to women, over half the world's population, that just hearing the word sets my jaw and tightens my stomach muscles?

As it turns out, no. Patriarchy has a long history, coming originally from the Greek word patriarkhes, itself from patria, which means "family" and arkhes, "ruling." So in Greek the word meant family rule, not explicitly male rule, or male-dominated culture or society. 

Family rule. And yes, you can make an argument that family rule meant male in ancient Greece, but not necessarily. If the word had specifically been "male rule" in the original Greek, the root would have been andrás, the Greek word for "man." Instead, it's the more inclusive and less-gendered patria, "family." 

Somewhere along the route that the word patriarchy has taken since, as it was modified in ecclesiastical Latin and then Old French and Middle English, it lost the possibility for un-gendered and perhaps more egalitarian rule implied by "family," and took on a more rigid meaning of males in power, females largely excluded. 

Okay, maybe not my eccentric (but happy) family in rule… 

As I read the etymology of the word, an idea took root in my mind: Why can't we reclaim the original meaning? Why not return the meaning of patriarchy and patriarch back to family rule? How do we go about "re-patriating" the word? 

If language is a cultural thing, stemming from both common and formal use, what if we simply began to assert that a patriarchal culture and society is one based on family, one that includes all genders, one that does not rest on any single person's shoulders? 

And while we're at it, let's stop using man as the gender-based word it is now. The roots of our English word "man" comes from Sanskrit manu, translated as "mankind," or "human," which both sound gendered. But look more deeply at the roots of human, and you find the Sanskrit root that has become hu in English is the word for "soil" or "earth." So human might more reasonably mean "people of the earth." 

If we called ourselves human in the sense of "people of the earth" and thought of our culture as one of "family rule," how much would that change our lives, our art, our thought, our institutions? Perhaps "Y-ugely." (Sorry, I couldn't resist that.)

Seriously, let's reclaim our language, beginning with at least these two words. Let's make these culture- and society-defining words inclusive and open to all. It's a start on building a society to match the potential of our species as people of the earth. Human, a family of all.