L’empire empire. The empire gets worse. It’s an empirical fact. Every imperialistic imperative ends in pyres and impertinence. You may think that the empire state is building, but all empires are stricken back in the sequel.

You may object that this is all wordplay, but if you object to wordplay, why are you here reading this? Anyway, many a truth may be expressed more engagingly with a bit of verbal titillation or scintillation. It’s not that lexical coincidences reveal truth; they just give the opportunity to make truth spicier.

And one truth that is lurking in all of this is that empire, like any empire, has claimed by association some things that do not pertain to it at all. Empirical, for instance, which always strikes me as referring to things seen in the empire of the world, comes from Greek ἐμπειρία (empeiría, ‘experience’), which is from ἐν (en, ‘in’) plus πεῖρα (peira, ‘trial, experiment, attempt’). It has no relation to empire, which comes from Latin in (‘in’ or ‘on’ or an intensifier) plus parare (‘make ready’ or ‘order’ – you see it in prepare as well, among other words). How do you get from ordering to an empire? Through an imperator: an emperor, a person who delivers imperatives (yes, also related).

And then there is French empirer, which means ‘make worse’ or ‘become worse’, from en (‘in’ or related prepositions) plus pire (‘worse’, from Latin peior, which shows up in English in pejorative). Although its first- and third-person singular present indicative conjugation is empire, it also is not related to the noun empire (which is spelled the same in French as in English). And yet.

We see empire in various places, some dating to when empires were seen as good things, others dating to when they were… not so much. The Empire State Building, in New York City, which in my heedless youth I processed as [Empire] + [State Building] rather than [Empire State] + [Building], is named after the State of New York, which is nicknamed the Empire State. Why is it nicknamed that? We’re… not entirely sure; there are ideas about who first called it that and why, and how the name caught on, but there’s nothing solid. We just know that it started somewhere and expanded somehow and by the mid-1800s it had taken over. And we know that people did not view empires badly at the time. It was, after all, the height of the imperial age: the British Empire, the Spanish Empire, the French Empire, and on and on, each one a rapacious metastasis of commercial and military might – or, if you asked people at the time, a manifestation of the glorious spread of civilization.

As though civilizations were only the victors. International law of the time followed a principle that, if held to in small local matters, would mean that mugging was not only good but right and just, because clearly the person who is able to rob you of your wallet is smarter and better prepared and thus more deserving. But eventually what goes around comes around, and the colonial enterprises sclerose into bureaucratic enterprises as the active rapacity of the invader turns into the passive rapacity of the collector of unearned wealth. And by the late 1900s (that means 1980 or so – sorry), The Empire Strikes Back could be counted on to have a tinge of villainy in the very name. It’s not that we hate all things empire now; but, like an empire waist on a dress, empires seem old-fashioned, high-handed, and heading for a bust. Somehow in empire we are more likely to hear vampire than umpire now (neither of those words is related, by the way) – and perhaps also pirate (also not related, but it is related to empirical).

And yet. Humans being humans, there will always be someone somewhere wanting more and finding a way to get it. There will always be an empire building somewhere, in some state. But empirical observation of history tells us that, like the Roman Empire, they rise and fall. 

J.M. Coetzee, in Waiting for the Barbarians, wrote this:

Empire has created the time of history. Empire has located its existence not in the smooth recurrent spinning time of the cycle of the seasons but in the jagged time of rise and fall, of beginning and end, of catastrophe. Empire dooms itself to live in history and plot against history. One thought alone preoccupies the submerged mind of Empire: how not to end, how not to die, how to prolong its era.

Mais quand même, l’empire empire.

One response to “empire

  1. There’s a nice example of the word at the entrance to the catacombs under Paris (which contains the skeletons put there just before the revolution): “Arrete, c’est ici l’empire de la mort”

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