A little Latin is a dangerous thing. Once you start realizing where words come from, you’ll never be able to utter a sentence again without thinking about what these words ‘really’ mean. I, who have acquired more than a little Latin, am a linguistic terrorist. I blow up entire sentences, leaving verbal debris.
More often, though, I just run around in circles, chasing an elusive insight through the tangled underbrush of meaning.
For example, I started this morning with the word ‘identity.’ We talk about identities being stolen, when what we really mean is numbers have been stolen, particularly that unique identifying string of digits we call a Social Security number. Society is much more secure now that we all have numbers.
Except when they are stolen. If I lose my identity, I am no longer unique. Possessing this, another person can steal other bits of my life — credit card numbers, checking account numbers, passwords.
But ‘uniqueness’ can’t actually be stolen, since what truly makes us all unique is DNA. Unless you’ve been cloned, no one has DNA identical to yours.
Linguistic point of order: No one is more unique than anyone else, or any less unique. That’s because unique is an absolute. You either are, or you’re not.
If we’re all unique, then none of us is really special. There is a limited amount of ‘specialness’ to share. The more of us there are on the planet, the less special each of us becomes. Like a flurry of unique, special snowflakes, we all end up looking like a pile of white stuff, and eventually slush.
Except that we’re all special, since we all belong to the same species. That’s because these two words – special and species – come from the same Latin word: species, appearance. To an alien, I’m sure we all look pretty much the same.
It’s easy to understand why we don’t want our identities stolen, since that involves money and reputation. But why is it so important to us to be unique? Humans are uniquely self-aware, but this need to stand out as an individual is a modern development. In the middle ages, the people who got their names on things were the ones rich enough to pay for them. All those craftsmen who built the great Gothic cathedrals of Europe? Part of the great, anonymous slushpile of time.
The world has changed a lot since then. Individuality is prized, conformity and uniformity disparaged. I read people’s profiles online, and see such a yearning to make themselves different from everyone else. Everyone is quirky and funny and unique. We all have different likes and dislikes, different quotes to define our uniqueness. Like women who show up at a party wearing the same dress, we are miffed if someone has already taken ‘our’ user name. The irony in all this is that, in striving to be different, we all do the same things – and come out looking pretty much the same.
I blame education for most of this. As a teacher, I must identify each child’s unique and special learning needs, and never, ever group my students according to ability, which would imply that some of them are below average. Our goal is to achieve what is mathematically impossible – to make everyone above average. Yet another irony: all my unique and special students are really just numbers to the people who are always admonishing teachers to ‘individualize’ instruction.
But before I start in on the absurdities of modern education, let me return to where I began: “identity.”
Anyway, here’s the etymology: identity comes from the Latin word ‘idem,’ which means ‘the same.’ Thus, identity isn’t what makes us all different; it’s what makes us the same. Striving for uniqueness only makes us more like everyone else.