Definitions and Descriptions

Alienated Labor:  Working for others for the sake of a paycheck rather than one's own sense of creativity. In the 19th century Karl Marx borrowed the idea. As Marxists envisioned it, alienated labor was supposed to vanish with enthusiasm for work that contributed to one's own benefit and society's benefit rather than for the profits of capitalists. Stalinists in the Soviet Union thought workers should be happy in their work.

Arable Land:  Defined by the CIA World Factbook is land with plants harvested regularly, including trees with fruits, nuts or rubber. Does not include land with trees harvested for wood. Does not include forests, permanent meadows and pasture, land that is barren or covered with buildings or roads.

Aristocrats:  Originally the more successful property-owning farmers. Their success allowed them more success while divisions between the wealthy and the poor grew. A class consciousness developed. Wealth passed from father to son, descendants having it easier than their original hardworking ancestor. They might have had advantages in schooling, perhaps becoming literate and familiar with various arts. And, not understanding genetics, they assumed that as members of an aristocracy they were innately superior by reason of inherited "blood," although they may have had less native intelligence than their enterprising farmer forebear or any number of slaves who labored under them.

Authority:  Authority is accepted, unlike rule, which is forced. Authoritarian rule is an unfortunate juxtaposition of words used on this site in want of a better expression.

Ayatollah:  Arabic "sign of God." A Shiite Muslim recognized as having proven wisdom across years of study, writing and lecture. Considered an expert in theology, jurisprudence and philosophy. Has acquired fame beyond academic circles. A rare accolade. Unlike a Catholic bishop no ceremony bestows an official office and title. 

Banality of Evil:  A phrase created by Hannah Arendt, who sat in on the trial of Adolf Eichmann in the early 1960s. She saw Eichmann as having committed deeds that were "monstrous" but rather than himself a monster  as having a commonplace mind, filled with cliché thought processes. In other words, this is evil created by a normal person, a mediocrity who is conforming to the corruptions of more clever people.

BCE:  Before the Common Era, equivalent to BC (Before Christ). BCE can also be expressed as Before the Christian Era. BCE is preferred by Jews who don't accept Jesus Christ as the Messiah and by others who prefer a secular designation. Many of us who use BCE are happy with the use of BC by those who wish to express their Christianity. Some people describe the use of BCE as "political correctness." This is strange insofar as political correctness is supposed to be about conformity and it is largely the users of BC who are conforming – to a tradition that is religiously correct.

Byzantine Empire, or Byzantium:  Described by Wikipedia as a "historiographical term conventionally used since the 19th century to describe the Greek-speaking Roman Empire of the Middle Ages, centered on its capital of Constantinople. It is also known as the Eastern Roman Empire." This site does not use "Byzantine Empire" or "Byzntium".

Capital/Capitalism:  Capital is wealth used for the purpose of gaining more wealth. It might be money or whatever else is used to produce wealth, but money becomes capital only when its purpose is investment. Joyce Appleby writes in her history of capitalism, that "We can add the 'ism' to 'capital' only when the imperatives and strategies of private investments come to dominance as they did first in England and the Netherlands, next in Western Europe, and then in the American colonies."

CE:  The Common Era, beginning with the year 1 on the Gregorian calendar. Equivalent to AD (anno Domini, Latin for the Year of Our Lord)

Civilized:  Originally a description that set one apart from those who were living in tribes outside one's more advanced society. It was an unjust concept of tribes, whose mentality was as geared for getting along with people as the so-called civilized.

Diaspora:  Jews dispersed to lands outside of Israel, beginning in the 600s BCE, and continuing during Roman times. Or any people dispersed from their homeland.

Duchy:  Territory, fief or domain ruled by a duke or duchess.

Economy:  Trade. One's cabbages for someone else's carrots or one's cabbages for money, one's labor for cabbages or for money.

Empire:  Traditionally empire has been defined as "supreme rule," as "absolute power," and as "a state uniting many territories and peoples under one ruler." Today, in 2004, a few people are describing the U.S. as having an empire, not an empire like the Romans had or an empire like the British had, but an empire non-the-less – in other words a new kind of empire. It is easier to call it empire rather than to spell out its difference from traditional empire or to resort to the word "hegemony." Calling it empire is more sensational, which helps attract attention or helps to sell one's book. Being dominant in influence and having the mightiest military force does not necessarily an empire make. The word "empire" suggests control, and although U.S. policy makers, like everyone else, would like to control as much as they can, they do not have control over any wide group of countries that could be described as an empire, as demonstrated by the voting of what are in fact the independent countries in the United Nations.


Fatwah:  Any variety of directives from an Islamic leader.

Future:  Some have proclaimed that there is no future, that all that exists is now. They are talking about time without understanding what time is. Time is motion. The planet moves. Our bodies internally are in motion, electrically in brain function and chemically. The future is the now of tomorrow, and you had better do something about, ignoring the obvious that there is only the ever-present now and preparing for the future nows by eating, sleeping or some other activity, and perhaps some kinds of work, or if you're on vacation perhaps by having fun.

Gross Domestic Product:  Incomes paid and services and goods bought within a territory's borders in a given year. On this site, GDP expresses purchasing power. In dollars and divided by a country's total population, its roughly corresponds to the economic wealth of the average individual in that territory. That it is not a perfect measure of average individual wealth is often expressed. One complaint is that it ignores non-market transactions. GDP is about wealth relative to the market economy. Individual income is on average below per capita GDP, but it in countries with higher per capita GDP the average individual income is generally higher.  Russia in 2003 had a per capita GDP of $8,900, relatively low by European standards, and average income was also relatively low by European standards, much below $8,900.

Hominids:  Class of primate that includes Homo sapiens – humans – of which only humans have survived.

Imam:  A male prayer leader. Among the Shia the Koran is interpreted as proclaiming that only God can appoint an Imam. Among the Sunni, an Imam is a teacher.

Institutions:  Culture and, except in autocracies, experience that has been hardened into law. 

Intelligence:  The ability to see connections between things and differences, quickly. The more info stored in memory the better. Playing with an abillity to see connections, there is also more of an inclination to ask questions.

Kow-tow:  A custom in China until the early twentieth century. The touching of one's forehead to the ground as a demonstration of respect, submission or worship.

Levant:  A name for the land around the eastern Mediterranean Sea, through Asia Minor, to what is now Syria, Lebanon, Israel, Palestine and Egypt.

Liberal Democracy:  "Liberal Democracy is more than majority voting in elections; it is a complex set of institutions that restrain and regularize the exercise of power through law and a system of checks and balances." So writes Francis Fukuyama with regret that some countries officially democratic systematically remove checks on executive power and have eroded the rule of law.

Life expectancy at birth:  This is an average shortened by the infant mortality average. The average life expectancy at age 30-years would be higher than at birth.

Lords:  Lordship has been attributed to gods who might strike people dead who did not serve them adequately. An earthly lord is a ruler by merit of ownership. He has been described as the head of a household. In feudal times the lord was a landowner. He provided his tenants protection against chaos, and sometimes he provided tenants with land to till, or a warrior (a knight) with land to supervise. Those dependent upon the lord were his vassals. Sometimes lords had their own armies, and sometimes they conquered local people. Sometimes lords were subservient to higher political authority. They taxed their tenant-farmers in the form of percentage of crops that the tenant grew and the goods that the tenants made, lumber that they tenant cut, et cetera. A knight was expected to raise a horse or two and do battle for the lord. Masking the violence behind the lord-vassal relationship was fealty:commitment from "the heart," in Europe demonstrated by the vassal dropping to his knees and clasping his hands together with fingers pointed upward – the origins of what became a gesture of prayer. Lords were a part of feudalism, and feudalism disappeared when voluntarism replaced authoritarianism. Lords became mere absentee landowners over collections of tenant-farmers. In urban areas they appeared in the form of slum lords taking rent from the poor or from welfare agencies.

Macrohistory:  With microhistory commonly described as the study of a point in the past – examples given via Google is the study of a small town or village – macrohistory can be described as the study of the past that ties together developments across a wide span of time. It needn't be world history, but histories that tie together developments that are global can be considered macrohistory. The macrohistory that makes up this website describes connections from as far back as as the "Big Bang," to yesterday.

Maghrib or Maghreb:  An area in North Africa that include Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia and Libya. That part of Spain that was rule by Muslims was also call the Maghrib. The word is also used by Arabic speaking people in place of the West's Middle or Near East.

Manichean:  Seeing things black or white, absolutely good or absolutely evil as opposed to people or movements embodying imperfections. It has its origins in the Zoroastrian religion, which saw reality as dualistic: god versus the devil, spirit versus matter. In Persia, the Prophet Mani picked it up attempting to create a universalist religion. It is believed that the Jews, ruled by the Persians, picked it up, and their Satan changed into a figure of evil. Christians inherited it, and it was a part of Christianity's ideological conflicts. In politics, Manichaeism is more common among people on the right because of their closer association with tradition.

Manorial System:  An owner of an estates seeks labor. Someone with land – sometimes very little – gives his land to the owner of an estate for protection or economic survival. He become a tenant of the owner – the lord – and does various jobs for the lord (such as carrying wood or manure in his cart, work on the lord's castle and harvesting) and perhaps the tenant recruits help for his work, and the lord might feed his tenant a meal in return. All this is by free agreement. The tenant is usually obliged to give the lord a portion of his annual crop. Sometimes military service is a part of the agreement. Manorial tenures varied widely. Legally the tenant was the lord's subject and technically free but it was easy to sink into serfdom, bound for life to his tenancy and sometimes forbidden to marry anyone other than a subject of the lord. As a subject of a lord the tenant had no political rights and could not sue in court. The manorial system survived in Eastern Europe into the 19th century.

Marxism:  The most fundamental element in Marxist thought is class struggle, with the "working class," those who sell their labor, triumphing over employers.  Marxists admonished fellow Marxists to examine society with class analysis.

Mathematics:  Math is no more than counting, which gets complex with various means, or shortcuts. Division is counting groups – groups of two, three, whatever. Algebra is counting by doing the same to both sides of an equation, keeping the equation in balance by adding, subtracting or dividing to one side of the equation exactly what you did to the other side. In Algebra the x or y do not represent numbers; they merely represent whatever is being counted. They remain unchanged. They are qualitative abstractions rather than quantitative, like an empty box which can be filled with whatever one wants.

Mercantilism:  Adam Smith and other classical economists used this term in criticizing a certain kind of economic policy. To quote Wikipedia, "Mercantilism as a whole cannot be considered a unified theory of economics. There were no mercantilist writers presenting an overarching scheme for the ideal economy, as Adam Smith would later do for classical economics." Some historians have described mercantilism as having dominated European thinking through the 15th and 18th centuries. Basically the idea criticized as mercantilist is that a nation advances itself best economically through protectionist tariffs, encouraging exports and discouraging imports. Those opposed to mercantilism believe that internationally it discourages trade and, therefore, the trade of one's own nation.

Microhistory:  Described by Wikipedia, "Microhistory is a branch of the study of history. First developed in the 1970s, microhistory is the study of the past on a very small scale. The most common type of microhistory is the study of a small town or village. Other common studies include looking at individuals of minor importance, or analysing a single painting. Microhistory is an important component of the 'new history' that has emerged since the 1960s. It is usually done in close collaboration with the social sciences, such as anthropology and sociology."  

Middle Ages:  According to the late Eugen Weber, historian extraordinaire, "Italian Renaissance humanists invented the notion of the Middle Ages (a term coined in 1469) to celebrate their own days and to highlight their difference from the thousand darkling years that had gone before."

Money:  Money does not make the world go around; want and work make money go around. Trade creates money rather than money creating trade, and the value of money depends upon how much there is of it circulating in the world of buying and selling. The greater the supply of money the less value it represents. The real value is in the goods or labor that money buys. Wealth is not money itself but what money will buy: energy, land, houses, cars, labor in the form of wages, food, diamonds, et cetera. Money is a more efficient way of trading than barter. The invention of money has been an advance for humanity. Money is anything that a society accepts it to be: a piece of paper or a piece of metal. Grain has been used as money. So too cowry shells, and feathers. The acquisition of money might be accompanied by illusion: Spain's acquisition of gold from the America's did little to make it a more wealthy country; if one's wages have increased three percent one may think he is acquiring more value, but he is not if his cost of living has also risen three percent. Money viewed as value written in stone is the view of conservatives who support austerity and don't want to see a diminution of what they have accumulated. It is a mistake to blame money for anything. Fault lies with people – greed, selfishness, poor planning, et cetera – not with money. The love of money is not the root of all evil. The root of all evil is indifference to others. One can love money and also have concern for others. The way for a government to preserve the worth of its money at a certain numerical value is to balance its budgets. Often the way to increase economic activity is government spending that reduces the worth of money.

 Mosque:  According to Bernard Lewis, the name mosque derives from the Arabic masjid, literally a place of prostration. The word mosque hasalso been traced at least in rumor to either Queen Isabella or her husband, King Ferdinand, of Spain, who were expanding Christianity against the Muslims. One of these monarchs is supposed to have spoken their intention to swat the Muslims "like Mosquitoes," giving rise, it is claimed, to the word "mosque," the place where Muslims congregate. Muslims, of course, prefer masjid to mosque. Anyone who can substantiate this is more than welcome to write me. The Oxford dictionary describes the origins of the word "mosque" as obscure, and it mentions English writers using forms drawn directly from the Arabic words masjid, mosged or muschid.  The Oxford dictionary describes "mosque" as "a Muslim temple or place of worship."

September 9, 2006: A reader writes that 'mosque' derived from the word 'mosquito' is a myth and has sent me her search on the word.

Mullah:  Member of the ulama, an Alim (singular for ulama). A man recognized by Muslims as having a religious education and as an authority on the Koran and Islamic law (the Sharia). Has been described as similar in ways to a rabbi in Judaism. 

Musicians:  purveyors of mood.

National Debt:  The sum of all the federal government's budget deficits (money borrowed), minus budget surpluses (money paid back), accumulated over the years.

Nationalism:  Of nationalism George Orwell wrote: "The abiding purpose of every nationalist is to secure more power and more prestige, not for himself but for the nation or other unit in which he has chosen to sink his own individuality."

Neolithic:  The latest of the three periods that some scholars use in dividing the Stone Age. They describe the Neolithic as a time when humans were using tools and weapons of polished stone and were also herding or raising animals.

Pantheism:  God is everywhere and permeating all. Some theists complain that if God is all, rather than distinct, God is vanished to nothingness. The atheist Richard Dawkins describes pantheism as "materialism on steroids." Some agnostics see pantheism as verbiage.

Parliament:  (from the French word for speech - parlement) derived from the time of William the Conqueror. The Norman kings had called a national assembly of select peoples together for consultation - England's first parliament.  After King Edward I (r. 1272 to 1307), parliament had taken a new shape. Lords had formed what became known as the House of Lords, and in what was called the House of Commons were knights and commoners (two knights from each county and two commoners, mainly merchants, with an adequate amount of property, from each chartered town.) The monarchy appointed the lords and summoned parliament to meet when and where it wished, and the monarchy dissolved parliament when it wished. A monarch had called the convening of parliament mainly for cooperation in acquiring money for the nation's government – his government. And members of parliament held back from cooperating in raising money while asking for a redress of whatever grievances had arisen among them.

Patriotism:  devotion to a community as opposed to devotion to one's individual interests without considering what is good for the community. It would be patriotic to walk, ride a bicycle or have a fuel efficient car to help keep the price of energy low. It would be patriotic for a U.S. citizen with a website to pay a hosting service in the United States rather than to add to the trade imbalance by sending money abroad. It is patriotic to try to improve the community through legitimate political action. Voting is a patriotic. George Orwell limits his definition of patriotism to acts that are defensive. Patriotism, he wrote is "...devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people." He could have changed "the best in the world" with the place and way of life that one prefers or holds dear and is eager to defend or improve.

Paleolithic:  An early part of the Stone Age, before the so-called Mesolithic and Neolithic Stone Age periods (lithic meaning stone or rock). The Paleolithic period begins with the use of the simplest of stone tools, a confusing definition in that perhaps this extends before Homo sapiens (humans). The Microlithic, at the end of the paleolithic, is said to be the beginning of "microlithic" tools and weapons and by a change in the nature of settlements.  A microlithic tool is a blade sharpened by chipping. Descriptions of the change in the nature of settlements are difficult to find.

Pornography:  There is much more to people than their sexuality – although it is their sexuality (and other bodily functions) that made possible their survival in evolution. Pornography focuses on sexuality often to the exclusion of people's broader humanity. Dictionaries describe pornography's focus as intended sensationalism. This puts it artistically in the same category as car chases in the bad movies that sell.

Prehistoric:  Before history was recorded in writing.

Reich:  Germanic lands. The First Reich has been described as beginning with Charlemagne, ending in 1817 and including Germany, Austria, Slovenia, Switzerland, Belgium, Netherlands, Belgium, Czech Republic, eastern France, Northern Italy and western Poland. The Second Reich is described as the empire ruled by the Hohenzollern monarchy from 1871 to the end of World War I. The Third Reich was Germany under Adolf Hitler.

Science:  A method of gathering information through the senses and logic (mathematics). Science has origins in philosophy. Science is one of humanity's inventions. But science as a method is more specific than philosophy. Science aspires to see connections. It reaches for tentative conclusions. It tries to approximate reality and remains open to more refined approximations. We know matters through its connections, or relationships, not as essences. Science does not aim at knowledge of the web of connections as a whole. Working at science requires more modesty than does attempting to grasp reality whole.  

Serfs:  A serf was a tenant-farmer not allowed to move away from the authority of his landlord. They were not sold in the same way that slaves were sold and they could hold property. Their background was farming and poverty rather than captives. A child born to a serf might be the property of the lord – called hereditary serfdom. A serf who ran away could be hunted down and punished. Serfs were often subject also to authority higher than their lord: the king, and kings might enforce laws that limited the abuses that a lord could inflict upon a serf.

Sharia:  A system of devising laws based on the Koran, hadith (sayings of Muhammad), centuries of debate, precedent and interpretation.

Square kilometers/miles:  1 square kilometer equals 0.386102 square miles.     

Stupidity:  A failure to make distinctions and connections in judging matters.

Toleration:  To refrain from intervening, to allow one to participate or function, social integration. It is not the same as approval or the same as appreciating.

Trickle-down Economics:  An economic theory which states that an economy works best by maximizing the amount of money that super-wealthy persons have, through tax breaks, allowing them to stimulate the economy through investment in private companies. These investments create jobs. Therefore what started as wealth that starts with those who have a lot of it trickles downand to what is being called the Middle Class. A rival point of view holds that businesses don't expand their workforce until more people buy whatever they are selling.

The United Kingdom:  The Brits started calling their kingdom the United Kingdom in 1800, the full title being The United Kingdom of Great Britain and Ireland, referring then to the whole of Ireland. From 1927 the title United Kingdom had a new beginning. It included Wales, Scotland, England and Northern Ireland.

Weimar:  A city in southern Germany, where, in 1919, the German National Assembly met and created what became known as the Weimar Republic – the German government between 1919 and 1933.

Copyright © 1998-2018 by Frank E. Smitha. All rights reserved.