Language and Practice: An Etymological Study of Monogamy, Non-Monogamy, and Polyamory

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I am not an etymologist and I know nothing about linguistics. This is not a careful study, but a fun trip through Webster’s (2001) aided by dictionary.com, subsequently verified by the OED (although using the terms found in Webster’s). An experiment in argumentation? Probably not. I do not always list each derivative.

The prefix mono- derives from the Greek mono-, monos = single, alone; from the Indo-European base men– = small, single. The current definition is one, alone, single.

-Gamy is from the Greek –gamia, gamos = marriage; the Greek from the Indo-European base ĝem-, to marry, be related. The English definition is marriage, sexual union.

Monogamy, from the French monogamie, derived from Ecclesiastical Late Latin monogamia, derived from the Greek mono– and –gamia: 1. the practice or state of being married to only one person at a time (circa 1770). 2. [Rare] the practice of marrying only once during life (the Greek definition).

Marriage, a Middle English term, carries nothing of love in its etymology or definition (the state of being married, the act of marrying). The Indo-European derivative is meri, young wife, related to meryo, young man; the Indo-European word finds its source in the Sanskrit márya-: man, young man, suitor. To marry is therefore an action that individuals conduct when young, i.e., two individuals form a sexual union while young. As part of the English definition, matrimony, also deriving from Middle English, has its origin in the Latin mater, Mother. The Old French seems the most correct, property inherited from one’s mother, so the following claim is a stretch: Marriage is the action of a young man who takes a young wife (not a young woman! Woman=wife in the Indo-European?) to bear his children.

Two things to draw from this.

  1. Monogamy defines itself by sexual intercourse. To be monogamous is to have one sexual union and to be a Mother, as the etymology suggests. To practice monogamy today is to carry on the traditional definitions, particularly #2 above, whether we like it or not. The practice or state of monogamy occurs when two individuals have sexual union, and ends when one or both individuals have more than one mate (the zoological definition of monogamy is the practice of having one mate). Thus, when individuals come together under the banner of monogamy and marriage, they come together, foundationally, on an agreement as to what acts are appropriate and inappropriate for their respective genitals. The promise or vow (rite or sacrament) is to reserve the use of the participants’ genitals for the purposes of becoming-Mother.

Monogamy, marriage, and matrimony, as noted, mention nothing of love or ethics in their definitions or etymology, although the rite or sacrament of marriage may say something about love, as in the Christian tradition and its contemporary secular form. Yet, the definition of matrimony, to be husband and wife, does not necessarily require love in its rite or sacrament of marriage, e.g., in arranged marriages or marriages of convenience. Neither are qualitatively lesser or less authentic forms of marriage (as per the definition).

The prefix non- derives from the Latin non, not. The contemporary uses of non-: not, the opposite of, and refusal or failure: used to give a negative or privative force, esp. to nouns. Based on what was written above, non-monogamy (not yet in a dictionary) would be the practice or state of not having one marriage, sexual union, or mate; the opposite of the practice of oneness; removing the quality of oneness from a relationship; and each of these definitions would keep their distances from a marriage or sexual union in which the young wife, by definition, is to become a Mother. However, retaining monogamy, even with the prefix non-, still suggests that the practice or state is defined by sexual union, thus, what the participants do with their genitals (sexual union with more than one mate).[1]

  1. If we take the etymology seriously, we might be able to say monogamy is the practice or state of having one marriage or sexual union which is singular, exclusive, and small. This implies that there is One perspective amongst a union of two individuals. Rather than coming together to build multiple perspectives, or have multiple perspectives on truth, life, experience, participants within monogamy remain trapped within a singular, and therefore small, view of how the world can be taken up. The most obviously example, held by many even today that the goal of monogamous marriage is for the wife to become a Mother, as implied by the etymological links. Both participants are alone because they are not Two, but One. This is what we mean by alone together. Monogamy, rather than engaging with the world, is a unit of two folding into One to the exclusion of others (romantic attachments and ideas to be sure, but we frequently see the exclusion of friends, family, etc.) and alternative practices of intimacy, closeness, and bonding.

So there is something very wrong with the word (non-)monogamy. We have adopted a word with a suspect definition and etymology. Perhaps a word (and practice) that has love (ethics) as its foundation might be better suited to our loving relationships.

The combining form poly-, from the Modern Latin, derived from the Greek poly-, polos = much, many, derived from the Indo-European pelu, large amount, whose base is pel-, to pour, fill. Pel– is naturally related to the current use of Full. The definitions of poly-: 1. much, many, more than one; 2. More than usual, excessive. Non-monogamy and polygamy are therefore the same practice or state by definition, although there is no dictionary definition of the former – the latter is a plurality of marriage.

Since we have seen the ills of (the word) marriage, any combing form with gamos will not suffice. We still need a better word to describe our loving and ethical practices and states.

Amorous, from the Middle English, root in the Latin amor = love, and amare = to love. Full of love, but also, albeit not exclusively, full of sexual love. Full of love echoes the Indo-European pelu and the base pel-. Polyamorous: a new English word circa 1972, pertaining to participation in multiple and simultaneous loving or sexual relationships. Thus we add poly- to amorous and have much, many, more than one, more than usual, an excessive amount of love to be poured until full.

Is this not what we want for ourselves and for our friends, family, and romantic partners? In the latter, do we not want them to pour their love into an excessive number of intellectual, emotional, familial, romantic, and sexual attachments? The first three to be sure, albeit begrudgingly in the average sexually exclusive relationship.

It seems wise to drop the word monogamy. We no longer define our relationships by what we do with our genitals; we define ourselves and our relationships by the large amount of love we receive and give in return; we want our partners to receive and give the same. Monogamy, etymologically, does not capture the love we feel and provide within and outside of sexually exclusive relationships. An ethical monogamy is, in fact, polyamorous. We will get to the “more than one” mate part of the definition in time. For now, let us use this correct word, a much more inspiring word that aptly captures the foundation of our romances and our lives – let us define our already ethical practices and states appropriately.

[1] Bigamy (Latin bi– = two, see –gamy above), polyandry (from the Greek polyandria, having many husbands; see below on poly-, and anēr = man), and polygyny (from the Greek polygýn, having many wives; see poly– below, and the Greek gunē = woman) similarly define themselves by sexual intercourse by being practices or states of marriage. The former, no doubt carrying over the religious offenses from its Middle English root, is a criminal offense when done knowingly.

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Non-monogamy is for commies

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After a short conversation at the bar last night, I started to reformulate, and shorten, something I’ve already said.

It seems that monogamist logic leads to ethical aporia. It goes something like:

“I want this (monogamy).”
Don’t you require another individual with whom to form a couple?
“Yes, I want this (monogamy) with a person (who can complete the wished for relationship).”
Shouldn’t you decide on the nature and form of the relationship together?
“If the person doesn’t want what I want, then they are not worth having a relationship with.”

So the relationship is for yourself, regardless of the needs and wants of the other?

“I want this (monogamy) with another person in so far as their needs and wants match my own (and their wants and needs should match my own since I want this [monogamy]).”

The person has value and worth when their views match yours only (or are forced to match yours)?

“No, but… I want…”

Non-monogamist logic is aware of this idea of One perspective (on a world that should otherwise be understood and experienced as containing multiple and oftentimes conflicting perspectives). This logic can be understood as:

“I don’t know what you want (and you don’t know what I want), and neither of us knows what we want from each other), so the structure of the romance should parallel these changing modes of desires and needs.”

There is something more ethical in this logic; it recognizes and attempts to negotiate the ambiguity of existence.

I would claim that monogamy is logically impossible if we hold the latter as an ethical principle. A claim to a static form of wants and needs makes an effort to predict, and perhaps negate (although not always – how dramatic and exciting are the affairs!), future encounters. The shape of an encounter, logically, cannot be stated in advance; or, if it can, it cannot logically (fully) consider the other participant in the encounter because they have not yet been encountered and therefore, the formulations about ourselves and the other person are unnecessary and incorrect abstractions.

In different words, even if two participants agree upon monogamy in perfect harmony, this is something of a false consciousness: you can’t agree on a future encounter, i.e., the same monogamist logic will play itself out when new intellectual, emotional, romantic, and sexual encounters take place. This is why serial monogamy is the dominant practice today. What is implied, therefore, is the flux of desires and needs. Non-monogamist logic thus works alongside this ambiguity as a principle based on ethically encountering other individuals, not the solipsist logic of personal happiness at any cost. (Is it surprising that monogamy and the capitalist ethos follow a similar logic? Both suggest that what matters first and foremost is the individual prior to encounter with the other: e.g., I want monogamy and will do whatever I can to achieve it; I will be successful in the marketplace and will do whatever I can to achieve it.)

Non-monogamy is communist love, and I think this is something Alain Badiou wanted to say in In Praise of Love, but he lacked the courage to name it. I agree with the monogamists’ uncritical dismissal of non-monogamy then: it is a good theory and difficult to implement in practice. (Monogamy, on the other hand, is an unethical theory and the repercussions have been extremely violent.) Being a good person is hard work. We should try to oust ourselves, and our partners, from the false consciousness of monogamy. It is not enough to say that we can be ethical within a poorly structured arrangement. As Duane Rousselle frequently writes, although with reference to capitalism and via Badiou, we need a radical change and should not be satisfied with incremental change. Non-monogamy is for communists; if we agree with leftist principles, why do we our radical politics stop before love?