Challenging Word of the WeeK: meliorism

(MEEL yuh riz um, MEE lee uh-) noun

Meliorism is the belief that everything tends to get better and better. One who lives by this doctrine is a meliorist (MEEL yuh rist, MEE lee uh-). These words are derived from Latin melior (better), the comparitive of bonus (good). The superlative is optimus (best), which gave us optimism and optimist. It may be hard to find much difference between the attitudes of meliorists and optimists, but the English novelist George Eliot (1819-1880) did find a shade of difference: The English poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936) wrote, in an autobiographical note: “I am not a pessimist but a pejorist (as George Eliot said she was not an optimist but a meliorist)…” In Latin, pejor means “worse” and pessimus means “worst.” A pejorist (whose doctrine is known as pejorism) believes that everything is getting worse; a pessimist thinks that it’s all going to be as bad as possible: superlatively bad, shall we say, in this atomic age? In any event, George Eliot thought that the world was going to get better – but not as good as possible; and that is the fine difference between meliorism and optimism. Other words from melior are ameliorate (uh MEEL yuh rate, -ee uh-), to improve; amelioration (uh meel yuh RAY shun), improvement generally, but with a special use in linguistics: semantic change to a better, i.e., more favorable meaning, the way Okie, once a pejorative term for a migrant farm worker, usually from Oklahoma, became merely a colloquial nickname for any Oklahoman, and exactly opposite to the way egregious (from Latin egregius, extraordinary, preeminent, based on prefix e-, out of, plus grege, a form of grex, herd, i.e., out of the herd) changed from preeminent to glaring, flagrant, notorious, as in an egregious blunder. But caution: meliority (meel YOR ih tee, mee lee OR-) hs nothing to do with attitudes about which way the world is moving; it is only an uncommon synonym for superiority.

My example: The death of Al-Zarqawi inspired meliorism in almost everyone except the media, members of the Democratic Party leadership and other professional pejorists.

From the book, “1000 Most Challenging Words” by Norman W. Schur, ©1987 by the Ballantine Reference Library, Random House. I post a weekly “Challenging Words” definition to call more attention to this delightful book and to promote interesting word usage in the blogosphere. I challenge other bloggers to work the current word into a post sometime in the coming week. If you manage to do so, please leave a comment or a link to where I can find it. Previous words in this series can be found under the appropriate Category heading in the right-hand sidebar.

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