KODIAK — Well, this has been quite a week for words, inspired by the national conversation in the wake of last week’s Kavanaugh SCOTUS hearings.
And, unfortunately, some of these words like “boof” and phrases like “Devil’s Triangle” lead us down some etymological paths that are too x-rated for our modest journalistic standards. Not that I’m complaining—I feel icky just thinking about those words, compounded with the fact that Kavanaugh straight up lied under oath, perjured himself, about what those words mean and about the extent of his alcohol use.
But the big question over the past week has been who was more credible in their testimony: Dr. Ford or Kavanaugh?
Credible, the adjective, means believable, or worthy or capable of being believed. It joined English in the late 14th century from the Latin credibilis, whose root is in the verb credere, meaning to believe.
The Proto-Indo-European origin of credere and credible is in the root kerd-dhe, which literally means to put one’s heart into something. In fact, the root kerd means heart, which makes words like creed (a statement of belief) and cardiac (heart) linguistic siblings.
So when we ask about someone’s credibility, we’re asking two things: do we believe someone is speaking and behaving from their heart? and do we know in our heart that what we’re being told is believable?
Indeed, the question of credibility has more to do with our emotional reaction to someone’s testimony and if that testimony aligns with our own values, than it does with logic, reason, and the preponderance of evidence.
And this explains why supporters of the Republican administration continue to support Kavanaugh’s nomination, and why supporters of the Clinton administration supported him through the Lewinsky scandal, despite both of these privileged men misrepresenting facts and testimony related to sexual behavior under oath, a felony.
Credibility has less to do with factual evidence in the court of public opinion, and more to do with believing those who share our ethical values.
Because we feel that if someone who shares our values loses credibility, then, by proxy, our own ethical system loses credibility. This fear is at the foundation of the appeal that many of these men are making now: Kavanaugh is a kind of Everyman, in that, if we believe Dr. Ford and Kavanaugh’s other accusers, then now every American male is under attack and could have his life ruined by these kinds of accusations.
Which is just stupid. It makes no sense—literally, claims of this kind are guilty of the logical fallacies of overgeneralization and non causa pro causa, or false effect. And it is an irresponsible claim, giving license to Kavanaugh’s youthful behavior.
Circling the hearings are various phrases with the word believe, notably “I believe her.”
Believe comes from the Old English belyfan, meaning specifically to have faith or confidence in a person. Up until the 17th century, you would see the word written as beleeve, and the past tense of believe was beleft.
Centuries earlier, the word was spelled geleafa, of which the nerd in me can’t help but make a linguistic connection to Doctor Who’s home planet: Gallifrey.
The word comes from the Proto-Germanic ga-laubjan, literally meaning to hold dear, to hold valuable, or, simply, to love.
Love? Really? Yep.
The second half of the root, laubjan, ultimately comes from the PIE root leubh, the root for the word love.
Though in Sanskrit, it’s the root for the word lobhaya, which means to make crazy. An interesting linguistic relationship there, huh?
So, for centuries, to believe someone meant to love them. In the mid-13th century, though, the word added the meaning of being persuaded of the truth, to accept something as true after being presented with authoritative testimony. That is, belief became more associated with the brain, and less with the heart.
During the Enlightenment, belief for Europeans became more of a tool to justify political and intellectual authority.
And today, it’s no different. Except today we seem to have forgotten the emotional roots of belief, of political and intellectual authority, which is why many pundits say that Dr. Ford’s testimony was dramatic and emotional, but gloss over the overwrought drama, tears, and fury at the heart of Kavanaugh’s testimony: in Washington, quite frankly, Kavanaugh has more political authority than Ford does.
These claims that either side of the aisle has made during this confirmation process political are ridiculous. It’s always been political. Always will be. Because these decisions are about what we value, what we truly love.