Saturday, September 14, 2004

Entry of esprit de corps

The French expression, esprit de corps, came to English in the late nineteenth century, just when Victorian public schools were instilling team spirit into their students. The French term literally means the spirit or corporate feeling of a group of people and today, in English, it refers to the feelings of solidarity, loyalty and shared purpose that keep a group of people together while motivating each member to act in the interests of all, or, the summum bonum. Esprit de corps is just the apt tag for the zeal of India’s freedom-fighters.

Cicero coined the word summum bonum in his book De Officiis and in Latin it means, literally, ‘highest good’. It came to English in the sixteenth century and promptly took on two senses: as a general term, it means the best thing one can get or the most desirable goal; as a technical term in ethics, it refers to the fundamental principle of goodness from which all moral values originate. It was the quest for a summum bonum that led to India’s Independence. Along the same lines are summum jus or the highest law, thus denoting the most strict and severe application of the law and summum pulchrum or the highest beauty.

Once India became determined to shed its colonial shackles, her suppressor had to accept the fait accompli. From the French, this expression literally means ‘accomplished fact’. Adopted by English in the nineteenth century, it refers to something that has already been done or settled and therefore cannot be changed. Fait accompli is usually used in the context of an act that has a direct and often unwelcome effect on a person, but this does not come to light until after it has been done, so that it cannot be reversed and nothing can be done to mitigate its effects.

The brave children of this country acted ex voto and fulfilled their vows made to the motherland. The Latin ex voto etymologically means ‘in accordance with a vow’. The source is the Latin votum or ‘solemn promise’ that is also the origin of vote and vow.