The history of ‘competition’ won’t cooperate

It's possible to argue the roots of 'competition' imply some sort of cooperation. But the word's history is all about defeating an opponent.

During the Olympics, athletes compete for the gold medal in each sport. It would seem that competition is a battle, a zero-sum game in which there is only one winner. But in recent years, in an attempt to put a more positive spin on the word, authors and athletes have mined competition’s etymology, looking for a more cooperative definition in which participants spur each other to improve, to perform at their highest level.   

For example, in his book, “The Heart of Running,” triathlete Kevin Everett explains that competition derives from the Latin com- (“together”) and petere (“to seek”). Competition is thus “to strive together for the attainment of something. ... True competition is striving for excellence together.” This is a wonderful reframing of what it means to compete – but is this the actual origin of the word, and does it matter?

The etymology Mr. Everett supplies is misleading. Com- does indeed mean “with” in Latin, and one meaning of petere is “to seek” – it is the source of the English word petition, a formal request. Going back even further, however, the root pet- indicated “to rush, to fly” or “to fall upon.” This endowed petere with many meanings: “to attack,” “to let fly [a spear, etc.]” “to embrace” (as in “to fall upon one’s neck”), “to beg, entreat,” as well as “to seek.” Thinking about competition as “attacking together” is, however, not as inspiring.

There are a few instances where com+petere produces a verb that can be defined as “to strive after something ... in company or together,” but these are not found in classical Latin and are “very rare,” according to Lewis & Short’s Latin dictionary. The noun competitor was more common, especially in a political context. In ancient Rome you didn’t “run for” office, you would “seek” it, so a candidate was called a petitor. The other candidates were your competitors, since they were seeking the same office “with” you. Though a literal translation of competitor is “co-seeker,” the Latin word had no connotations of working together. 

Redefining the word competition as “striving together for a common goal” seems to be cherry picking the evidence. It is also an example of what philologists and philosophers call the etymological fallacy, “the idea that knowing about a word’s origin, and particularly its original meaning, gives us the key to understanding its present-day use,” according to the Oxford Handbook of Etymology.

Like many writers, I am drawn to re-imagining competition as a cooperative process that raises everybody up, rather than a battle that leaves only one standing. We’ll have to look beyond the word’s history to support that argument.

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