How do you Want it?

I don’t exactly remember where this NOM came from.  I know it sprang from a situation where I was reading about people talking about “wanting” something in some way that made me think about how I wanted things.. because they were different.


More than that, however, I no longer know.  Despite putting down “NOM-Wanting” on my lists of “daily tasks to get done” for the past couple of weeks–there were always more important tasks that took precedence.

I had yardwork to do.
I had the kitchen to clean.
I had to go meet about with people about the upcoming semester.
I had wood  to chop.
I had dinner to make.

Of course, not all of those things above sound all that fun.  But I chose to do them instead of writing on this blog.


Did I want to do those things more than writing on this blog?

Yes. I wanted to chop wood more than write.
I wanted to clean the kitchen more than write.

“What’s up with that?” you might ask.  You wanted to do dishes instead of blog? Are you insane?

Probably. Given what’s considered “sane” in much of culture and society–I might just be a bit insane, but I think I can also explain it by delving into the concept/term/idea of wanting. 

As I am wont–not want–to do (oh what a pun!***), I will first look at the definitions and etymology of the word want.

Want is interesting. In the languages closest to English–namely Dutch and German–the equivalent verbs are “wollen”(3rd person “will”) and “willen.”  This verb exists in English also–not surprisingly in the modal verb “will” (from old –but its meaning has changed.  In both German and Dutch,  “wollen” and “willen” mean “to wish, want, desire,” whereas in English, “will” has come to mean something more like “am willing, shall, choose” and to imply the future.

So where did want come from?

It came from Scandinavia.  Want comes from Old Norse vanta, which meant “to be deficient, lacking.”   One can see this kind of meaning in the expression, “It was found wanting.” ==It is deficient, flawed.  An english cognate of this verb is found in our current verb “to wane,” meaning “to diminish, decline,” and which is most commonly associated with the phases of the moon.


Historically, the verb is first noted as appearing around 1200 AD, but I would reckon that it probably came over with the Danes back in the 800’s, when they (as Vikings) conquered much of England and set up shop in the Danelaw for the next 200 years.   Perhaps it was only noted in 1200 because all of England had been ruled by the Danish King Canute between 1016-1042, and then England was again conquered in 1066 by the Normans–who were Francofied Viking descendants–and French became the main written language on legal documents (as well as Latin) until well into the 1200’s.  Although I haven’t found direct sources for this, it would make sense for the gradual seepage of Old Norse terms first into commonly spoken english, then into the upper classes, to happen because of these historical events.

In any case, want remained a verb solely denoting deficiency or lacks into the 1700’s, which is when we start to see the crossover in meaning towards “desire, wish” in its meaning. This meaning has become dominant since that point, and current definitions almost always begin with the meaning of “desire, long for” in current dictionaries.

This evolution of meaning from “to be lacking” towards “to desire, long for” in a pretty ubiquitous and oft used word in English is pretty fascinating to me.   If you think about it, there are some profound shifts in structure and meaning that went into this..  Previously, to say, “I want knowledge.” (I am ignorant.) would have been extremely negative and would have implied a kind of reflexive or passive reaction to the subject.   Currently, saying “I want knowledge.” would be seen as rather positive–that the person is actively desiring or seeking out knowledge (let us agree that this is a good thing.).

This is a pretty profound change in a word, and I believe it plays a role in the original cause for this post–namely my reaction to somebody talking about their wanting.  Specifically, they were talking a lot about all the things that they wanted (desired) that they could never seem to have (these were material things, mainly).  It made me think of all the people who focus so much desire on material objecst–say like an iPhone–or the whole Black Friday phenomenon–and how intense their desires actually are.
Wanting had become pure desire for them.

This struck me mainly because my sense of wanting was different.

It’s not better.  That is DEFINITELY NOT MY CLAIM HERE. I’m speaking just for me here.

But it is different.

When I talk about wanting something, it is much more of a transient kind of phenomenon.   If I want something, I dedicate myself towards having it–and then marshall all my energies towards getting it.   These things that I want can be big–I desperately wanted to be with my best half after I met her and fell in love with her–or it can be something as simple as my morning coffee.


However, these things that I want, I act until the want is gone.  The intensity of this action is expressed quite well by the sentiment on the side of this coffee mug.

Which is mine.  I saw this mug online. I wanted it. I made it mine.

The flipside of this phenomenon, however, is that when I find something that I desire, but I realize that the amount of energy that would be needed to get it would be unmanageable–or detrimental–then I stop wanting it.  I concluded that I was not lacking this object, or goal–and this would free up space for me pursue other things.

Perhaps I’m just lying to myself here.  Telling myself a story that I don’t want these things–but it works.  And I don’t tend to think about it much more.

Again–I’m not saying this is a better strategy–I’m only saying it is mine.  It works for me, but I’m also an amazingly privileged individual–I’m white, male, upper middle-class, American, and over-educated.

Being free from wants is pretty simple for me to accomplish. Thus the caveats.

What interests me more than pushing an agenda is to think about the range of meanings covered by wanting.

Wanting is about our desires.

Wanting is about what we are missing.

Between the two points of desire and lack, there is the crucial element of need.

And that’s where things get interesting.  If things we are lacking are necessities–then our wanting can be very, very strong–and it can drive our actions.  If, however, the things we are lacking are merely our desires–they aren’t really needed–then our wanting can become a possibly destructive force (only possibly–because sometimes desires are important tools towards accomplishing goals we don’t need, but which make life better… anyway..).

I see this when I think of people waiting in line for days for a new version of the iPhone.  Or the stampedes on Black Friday.  This is desirous wanting run amok. It is where a desire is treated as if it is a necessity–and the force of wanting is used to drive our actions.

Some of this, I believe at least, comes from the overlapping meanings and connotations in the word want.   It spans a huge gamut of meaning in the English language and there are a wash of subtle, and yet powerful emotions and motivations that it can express.

Furthermore–we are living in a society that wants increasingly more.  As google can tell us, the overall usage of the world “want” has more than doubled in the last 40 years and is climbing.   This is almost certainly related to our rapidly expanding consumer society–but it is something that we are starting to realize is problematic when we think about issues of sustainability.

What do you want? and How do you want it?

Those are question we need to think about a lot in the next decades..


About Prof. Woland

I contain multitudes. Come meet us.
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