How aggression got such a bad name

A word that hangs over the history of Asia is a reminder that words don't always mean what their roots suggest they should.

I was over in one of the halls of academe the other day to hear some scholars' ideas about what was likely to be going on in Asia 10 years from now. They were hearteningly upbeat, in the main. The new president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, was identified as someone to watch. That he'd gone to school with some of them didn't hurt their estimation of him either.

One of the interesting ideas, something of an aside from one of the speakers, was that the nations of East Asia are in many ways at about the same point Europe was in the years right after World War II.

They are just beginning, in other words, to develop the kind of cooperative institutions, such as the European Union, that for well over half a century now have kept the peace and led to levels of prosperity undreamed of by earlier generations.

And yet the word "aggression" keeps cropping up in discussions about Asia – memories of Japanese aggression during World War II (still insufficiently acknowledged and repented of, in the views of the scholars I heard), as well as fears of potential future aggression from China, as that country expands militarily and economically in the phenomenon known as "China rising."

These musings on my part led to other musings about the word itself, aggression, and how it needn't have such a negative meaning. It's related to progress and a host of other words with the same Latin root, gradi, meaning "to step."

Aggress, the rarely used verb, which means to start a quarrel or to be the first to attack, is made up of the ad particle, meaning "to," plus gradi – "to step to" something. Progress is simply pro (forward) plus gradi. There's regress for backward motion, digress for motion apart or off to the side, ingress and egress for ins and outs. The story goes that showman P.T. Barnum cleared crowds from his popular American Museum in New York City with a sign or signs pointing them "This Way to the Egress."

Even the word ingredient, as in a recipe, fits in here. Ingredients are the things that go into the recipe.

Likewise, congress, as in the federal legislature of the United States, is in this same family of words. This fall we will elect a new Congress; I wish we could elect a Progress instead.

No, not fair. The initial con is from Latin and means "together" or "with." So a Congress is in theory a group of people stepping together. The con that is the opposite of pro is short for contra, against. And that pro means "for" rather than "forward."

But I digress.

Because I so often look to word origins for deeper insights on meanings, all this is a reminder to me that words mean what they mean, that the meanings they acquire are what matter. What something does mean trumps what it ought to mean.

Some words, like trees, grow straight up from their roots. Other words are like vines whose roots are here but whose branches, because of wind or sun or maybe some aggressive (that word again!) pruning, are mostly over there.

Still, I can't resist the idea that aggression ought to mean something along the lines of stepping up to something, of "stepping up to the plate," to borrow a baseball metaphor.

One of my dictionary's definitions of aggressive, after the more bellicose ones, is this: "full of enterprise and initiative; bold and active; pushing." This positive sense shows up in usages like "aggressive enforcement" of a particular law, or even the aggressive pruning cited above.

And one definition of aggression that the dictionary traces to the field of psychiatry is "forceful, attacking behavior, either constructively self-assertive and self-protective or destructively hostile to others or to oneself."

Assertive is welcomed into many contexts nowadays as a kinder, gentler alternative to aggressive. Assert, like insert, comes from the idea of joining in, of falling into a series – indeed, series is a related word.

"Constructively self-assertive" sounds like what I wish aggression meant.

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