What is the Worth of Values?

This is the first post of the new year–2012 Year of the Apocalypse or Not–and it is back to the old routine of exploring etymology a bit.

This time it started with a thought a couple of days ago when I–in the midst of reading about Old Saxon and Old English–came across the old verb “weorthan,” which totally reminded me of the term “worth.”  The meaning of the verb in Old English is “to become/happen” and it is clearly similar (and a cognate) to the modern German verb werden, which means the exact same thing.

Anyway, I wanted to know if there was some connection between the idea of “worth” and the process of “becoming” or developing into something… i.e. I wanted to know if “worth” was associated with growth or progress at a deep and/or fundamental level–so I went digging.

There is a connection–but not exactly what I was originally thinking.

Specifically, both “worth” and “weorthan” do come from the same original root, but the current meanings both developed from a different and more simple original root meaning. In essence, both came from an indo-european root “*uer/*wer,” which means “to turn/bend/wind.”  Interestingly enough, there is a direct descendent of “weorthan” in modern English in the archaic verb “worth” that is used in the antiquated expression “Woe worth the day” (Woe becomes the day…).

Besides worth, this root *uer/*wer =to wind/bend/turn eventually generated a lot of terms that one might not initialy think to put together.  It is the root of warp (which is cognate to German werfen=to throw, from which you also get Wuerfel=dice ), of Worm/Wyrm (Wurm in German), and finally of the communal Brattwurst that we enjoy in both Germany and here in Wisconsin.

In most of these latter creations, the concept of turning/bending/winding seems pretty clear.  Worms and Wurst (sausage) fit with the physical perceptions of things that are turned, bent, wiggling, etc..  Warping also fits with the notion of something bending (as does werfen=throwing, as your arm is rotating/turning in its socket…).

But what about worth?

The weorthan/worth(v.) meaning of “becoming/happening” doesn’t seem too far of a stretch as we have similar expressions like the turn of events to describe the same basic process.  Thus the idea of “becoming” coming from the turning of the world, from the progressing of time, and from winding of the clock, etc. etc… that seems logical.

The more common meaning of “worth,” however, seems a bit more unclearly derived.  The origin of it comes from its derivation from the proto-germanic extension of *uer/*wer into *werthaz, which meant “toward, opposite.” In this sense, the idea was that something was put in contrast with another thing and was therefore its equivalent.   Importantly, it’d be worth mentioning that the latin cognate for “worth” is “versus,” which gives this framing/positioning of “worth/worthy” a bit more structure.

Thus–talking about a “worthy opponent” is both enlightening for understanding the meaning of “worth” itself, but also technically redundant.  In any case, “worth” seems very tied to external objects–in that it comes from an “opposite”.. an “other” rather than directly referring to something generated within ourselves.

Now–after having discovered and discussed the concept of “worth,” what else might we consider?  Well, my brain immediately considered the synonyms that we have for “worthy” in English and one of the most obvious is the term “value.”

If something is “worthwhile” we would also usually describe it as “valuable.”

But where does “value” come from–and what did the term originally mean?  Also–“value” and “worth” are not perfect synonyms–they cannot be used interchangeably. For example–we can speak of “the values that one believes in” or “Family values”–but we cannot speak of “the worths that one believes in” or “Family worths.”

Thus–it might be productive to figure out where this term “values” came from….

With a bit of research, one easily finds that “value” comes from French “value,” meaning “worth, value” and that it comes from the Latin verb “valere” meaning “be strong, be well, be of value.”  While this is somewhat helpful, it is more fruitful to look at the expanded range of meanings and look at the related word, “valiant,” which comes form the same root.  Looking there, one sees that the feeling of “value” comes from words more closely related to power/strength/bravery.  Importantly, one can see that Proto-Germanic and English have their own cognates of “value,” and these are wealden for Old English, which eventually became “wield” in modern English.  This word’s original meaning was “to rule,” and it’s clearly associated with such things as we currently usually talk about someone wielding power or wielding a weapon.  In German, these kinds of associations are more clear.  Walten is the German root word, and while it means “to administer/rule,” one finds numerous expansions of this root in Verwaltung(=bureaucracy), Gewalt(=violence), and Vergewaltigung(=to rape).

Thus, in summation, we might compare and note that the word “value” originates in terms that resonate with being strong and having power–while “worth” is a term that comes from recognizing that others may have power.

This is interesting to me, but it fits with how we use the terms.  Because value has an association with power that can be internalized to ourselves (being strong!), we can directly say “we value” something and that we are valuable ourselves.  It is also possible for us to acquire “values” from other people, which is, in a sense, acknowledging that they have some power/influence over us.

Worth, on the other hand, is not an internal quality as such–but rather involves us acting in a way to recognize the value/importance of something else that is (usually) external to ourselves.  In addition, it is a less common thing, methinks, to talk easily about how we, ourselves, are worthy of something.  More common, in my experience is the expression of someone else telling us that we are worthy–which fits in with the “opposition” type of feeling that “worth” originally had.

Overall, we determine “worth” in something by turning to face it, perceiving it, and making a judgement, whereas “valuing” is something somewhat different and a lot more fluid.  We may value something because we’ve been taught that it’s important, or because it fits the values we hold and believe in ourselves.  We may also say something is “valuable” because it has been assigned a certain status or importance on a particular society scale (monetary or social value of something..).

Of course, in everyday usage, these two terms often overlap and I do not deny this, but it is interesting to see that they come from slightly different places etymologically and that they also thusly have different areas of application.


About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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One Response to What is the Worth of Values?

  1. Pingback: Meaning of Meaning… | The Philosophy of NOM

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