Beyond Words - Language Blog


By now everyone has heard the announcement that the United States’ president Barack Obama is the recipient of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize. The announcement, which was made at 5 am Eastern Standard time, even surprised President Obama. Of course, criticism from conservatives in the U.S. has already reached fever pitch levels.

Defending their choice, the Peace Prize committee cited Obama’s efforts to create a “a world free from nuclear arms…[Obama] has powerfully stimulated disarmament and arms control negotiations. Thanks to Obama’s initiative, the United States is now playing a more constructive role in meeting the great climatic challenges the world is confronting. Democracy and human rights are to be strengthened.” NYTimes

This led me to do a little digging on the etymology of “peace.” The word is steeped in strong images and connotations, it is historically and culturally significant to all peoples in all societies. So what is in the word that brings us all to the same ideas of well-being, harmony, and quietude?

Our English word stems from the Anglo-Norman pes, peas, pees, pais and Old French pais, pes, pez. The transition from Old to Middle French brought about the spelling of paix which, in the second half of the 10th century, came to mean “tranquility in relations between two or more individuals.” By the 11th century (c. 1050) paix held relgious connotations as “state of tranquility which comes about as a result of fulfilling religious duties.” By 1100 it meant “peaceful relations between fellow citizens” and “condition of a nation or state which is not at war.” By 1200 the political and the personal were fully combined in the word and peace now included the definition of “freedom from anxiety or inner conflict.” A few years later in the 13th and 14th centuries, “truce” and “peace treaty evolved.”

At the same time as this Anglo-Norman-French strain of the word, peace also evolved from the classical Latin pax: “peace, order, security, amity, concord, tranquility, calm, stillness, pact or settlement, peace personified, goddess of peace.” By the 9th century the word had evolved to mean “protection guaranteed by the monarch to certain people” from the post-classical connotation of the kiss of peace and general enforcement of public order. Other lines can be traced to the Old Occitan paz (c1070; Occitan patz), Catalan pau (1251; earlier as paz (c1150) and pad (c1200)), Spanish paz (1207), Portuguese paz (1145), Italian pace (13th cent.).

Cursory as this etymology may be, there’s certainly a strong thread pulling together the word peace. What could mean multiple things in various countries seems to generally draw from the universal ideas of tranquility and restfulness—a country at rest, not at war or a person at rest, in tranquility, with themselves. My hope, of course, is that the Nobel committee’s announcement of Barack Obama as the Peace Prize recipient is that everyone peacefully accepts it. After all, it’s simply an award—albeit one with strong cultural and political implications. But in keeping with the nature of it, peace ought to be the only response.