avarice, greed, cupidity

Dear word sommelier: I’m unsure whether what I want to describe is best called avarice, greed, or cupidity. Which should I use for what where and when?

Oh, heck, why have just one if you can have all three?

If you’re wondering about the semantic difference between the three, you’re not the only one. This question was discussed today on the Editors’ Association of Canada email list, and there were differing opinions about whether one or another was more or less money-specific. And while a dictionary might tell you some little difference like that – or actually more likely won’t be so obliging – what really matters is how the people who actually read or hear it, who are unlikely to be running every word through a dictionary, will perceive it. And we know that there are different views on that. In other words, never mind the label or the guidebook, let’s taste it and talk about food matching.

Words, after all, are known by the company they keep. And they also gain flavour by other words and sound patterns that they bring to mind. So let’s swirl and sniff and sip and spit (or swallow) each one of these.

Greed is now the most common of the three by a fair measure, though if Google ngrams are to be believed it was not always thus (remember, though, that the Google ngrams search books, not popular usage in general). Its popularity gives it a certain commonness but also gives it more accretions. There are the pop culture references – “Greed is good,” as Michael Douglas’s character Gordon Gekko said in Wall Street, and Ayn Rand in Atlas Shrugged also glorified greed; meanwhile, Han Solo blasted a slimeball named Greedo in a cantina on Tattooine – and it tends to show up with words such as corporate, human, personal, pure, sheer, and simple.

It has a taste of green, as in envy, and creed, as in a fixed statement of belief. And it has that growling, gripping /gr/ onset. Generally it is the most purely negatively toned of the three, Gekko and Rand notwithstanding. Interestingly, while greed tends to focus on financial and material acquisition, greedy, its related adjective, can also be used comfortably to refer to such things as eating. Just by the way, greed actually comes from greedy, not the other way around; greedy is itself a derivative form of a Germanic root for “hunger” or “greed”, however.

Avarice is less popular than it used to be – the word, I mean, not the thing, which is quite durable. It is found in more elevated texts – it is more erudite in tone, and seems a more expensive word. It’s like greed as practiced by “the right sort” of people – greed with a bowtie. It’s also one of the seven deadly sins. It comes from Latin avaritia, from avarus “greedy”, and it’s been used in English at least since Chaucer.

The feel of it may vary a bit from person to person – it makes me think of avaler, French for “swallow”; also avalanche, avenue, rara avis, avid, average, maybe aviatrix, and perhaps advice… Its adjective, avaricious, on the other hand, carries an air of vicious. Avarice seems comparatively open and airy in sound; certainly the mouth is much more open than for greed.

Cupidity, in the here and now, is one of those words that people probably feel a little twinge of pride in knowing, because it’s sufficiently uncommon. It’s a bit like avarice with a PhD. It keeps pricier company – words such as pudor and rapacity may be seen in the same sentence. Or maybe I’m only thinking of education because someone pointed out to me once, as we were walking by it, the cupid that is on top of the spire of The Memorial Church in Harvard Yard, and I said it was a monument to cupidity (Harvard’s endowment is $26 billion. Yes, $26 billion). And, yes, that chubby little cherub shares a root with this word: Latin cupidus, “eagerly desirous”. It’s a little newer to our tongue, having arrived in the 1500s.

The taste of cupidity is conditioned by various odd echoes: stupidity, cube, cubic zirconium, cubit… It is a word with a cup that runneth over (and still wants to be refilled). And it may well have a tinge of sexual desire, not just from Cupid but from concupiscence (which might be practiced in combination with a cupidous concubine). But it is the crispest of the three words, chunky, blocky, or at least tapping; its four syllables have four stops, each with a vowel, while avarice has three syllables with fricatives and a liquid (and vowels before consonants), and greed has two stops, a liquid, and only one vowel.

So which to use? Consider the rhythm and the sounds of the sentence around; consider also the tone – how lofty or plain? How harsh or mitigated?

But certainly keep all three in your bank to use. Look, you can never have too many words at your disposal. And spending them is actually your best investment.

7 responses to “avarice, greed, cupidity

  1. Pingback: concupiscence | Sesquiotica

  2. Great discussion of the subtle distinctions between those three terms, and witty to boot! Or should I say clever? Argh!

  3. Although somewhat tangential to the focus of the blog, I wish to quote the late Christopher Hitchens, who once opined, “By a nice chance, cupidity and avarice are the spur to economic development”. He went on to add, “Perhaps we would be better mammals if we were not made this way, but nothing could be sillier than having a ‘maker’ who then forbade the very same instinct he instilled.” Clearly, Hitchens did not believe that the terms [alluded to] were exactly the same, either. I also suspect he would have thrown ‘concupiscence’ in there had he thought about it some more!

  4. Absolutely fascinating! Thank you so much for the complete break down of those words in all their facets. You presented those words brilliantly! Well done!

  5. Bravo! How amusing, intelligent and droll!

  6. Only recently, I’ve become more interested in having a better understanding of the words I’ve been using for years, and I thought you did an amazing job at breaking these three down. Thank you very much!

    “It’s a bit like avarice with a PhD”, made my day!

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