A word that works its way across the social spectrum

As 2009, the big year of social media, wraps up, the Monitor’s language columnist considers just what a workhorse the word ‘social’ is.

They say that, during the Roaring ’20s, Joseph Kennedy knew it was time to get out of the stock market when he found out that his shoeshine boy was investing. A similar principle may be at work in the universe of social media now that I’m signed up on Facebook. For the true cognoscenti, this may be the beginning of the end.

But there can be no doubt that one of the big themes of 2009 has been social media. I can imagine some moviemaking team of the year 2089, say, using social media as a device to set a story in the early years of the 21st century the way George Clooney and his colleagues used cigarettes to anchor their 2005 film about Edward R. Murrow, “Good Night, and Good Luck,” in the 1950s. (Terrific flick, but I came out of the theater feeling I needed to detour past my dry cleaner’s on the way home.)

What a workhorse of the language our word social, with all its relatives and derivatives, is. It stretches across the political spectrum from left to right, and up and down the socioeconomic scale.

All the discussions about how people, usually young people at the beginning of their careers, need to be careful about what they post on Facebook because their employers, or prospective employers, might see it are ultimately a reflection of this breadth of meaning. Some employers, I hear, give their workers a “Facebook amnesty,” a window in which to take down photos deemed objectionable. Workers must comply or risk having their employer become their previous employer.

The dictionaries trace social back to a Latin word, socius, meaning companion or ally. Note that the Latin socius suggests both friend and colleague, love and work, so to speak, a personal connection and a professional one. And ally suggests one with whom the connection may be only very brief, or merely tactical, or limited in scope, or some combination of all three.

Three different ancient conflicts, two fought by the Greeks and one by the Romans, go by the name of “the Social War.” What’s meant in each case is a war fought with (presumably in the sense of alongside) allies. Out of context, though, the name seems to suggest a conflict waged in white tie and tails. Or maybe not. The phrase “social war” also pops up in the name of a Chicago-based blog with a tag line “Violence is the fundamental truth of politics.”

This is what I mean about social and its kin running left to right and up and down. The Social Register, for instance, is not the directory of people who live in social housing.

There’s “society” in a Cole Porter sense, and in a Marxist sense. There’s one’s “social life,” in a blue-blood conservative sense. But then, often on the left, there’s “social comment” and “social criticism” as well as the oxymoronic “social alienation.” There’s socialize in the sense of making someone sociable, as when educators speak of schools “socializing” children. Or the intransitive usage: “She socializes too much at the office to get much done.” To say nothing of “socialized medicine.”

I have in the inner ear of memory the quaint concept of “people we know socially,” as distinct from “professionally.” But today people use what they call “social networking sites” to advance their career. It was ever thus, I suspect. If the personal is political, then the social is the professional, too.

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