GRE Vocab and the Seven Deadly Sins: Part II – Avarice

An early sixteenth century Dutch depiction of the seven deadly sins, by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch.

An early sixteenth century Dutch depiction of the seven deadly sins, by a follower of Hieronymus Bosch.

Last time on GRE Vocab and the Seven Deadly Sins, we discussed words that have to do with the sin of lust and the virtue of chastity. This time, we move on to another deadly sin, avarice, and its corresponding heavenly virtue, charity.

What is avarice? In short, avarice means greed. It comes from the Latin verb avere, which means “to crave.” If  someone is guilty of the sin of avarice, you would say that that person or that person’s behavior was avaricious. In Catholicism, avarice is the sin of excessive desire for wealth and material possessions, especially when accompanied by a disregard for the well-being of others. Theologically, it is seen as the rejection of heavenly, spiritual treasures in favor of worldly, material ones.

Avidity, cupidity, rapacity, and acquisitiveness are all synonyms of avarice. You may know the word avid, which is an adjective that means showing great enthusiasm for or interest in something, as in “he is an avid reader.” The word avid came to the English language in the 1700s from the French word avide, which in turn was derived from…the Latin verb avere, the same root from which avarice is derived. It’s interesting to see how these two words evolved to have rather different meanings and connotations even though they come from the same root. Avid has lost its sinful connotations and has come to mean “enthusiastic,” whereas avarice is an official deadly sin. Avidity, a noun form of the adjective avid, retains the meaning of greed, however.

A 1610 painting of Cupid by Schedoni.You might think that the word cupidity would have something to do with love, since it has the name Cupid in it, and in Roman mythology Cupid was the son of the goddess of love, Venus, and he famously would cause people to fall in love with each other by shooting his arrows into their hearts. Originally, in Latin the word cupiditas (which derives from the Latin verb cupere, which means to desire, and is also a root of concupiscent, which you may remember from the post on lust) did have erotic overtones; the Romans sometimes gave their gods names that were literally the words for the abstract forces they were supposed to control, and so Cupid literally meant “desire.” Another name for him was Amor, which literally meant “love.” When the word moved from Latin to English in the 1400s, the desire for flesh transformed into a desire for gold. Cupidity today always means greed.

Rapacity is another word for greed. The adjective form of this word is rapacious, and you may have noticed that these words sound like another word you know: rape. All of these words derive from the Latin verb rapere, which means “to seize.” The word “rape” first entered what was then Middle English in the 1200s from French, which inherited the word from Latin itself. Given this organic evolution and the violent nature of life in the Dark Ages, it is not surprising that the word came to refer to the forcible  seizing of women. The words rapacity and rapacious, however, entered English directly from Latin some 400 years later during the 1600s, and were probably invented by Latin speaking scholars. These words thus retained more of their original, unsexualized, Latin meanings of seizing things in general, and over time came to refer to insatiable and even violent greed for material wealth.

The Worship of Mammon, by Evelyn de Morgan. Mammon was a demon associated with avarice.

The Worship of Mammon, by Evelyn de Morgan. Mammon was a demon associated with avarice.

Acquisitiveness, or the quality of being acquisitive,  also refers to the desire to amass material possessions, although it does not necessarily have as negative a connotation as the other words we have been discussing. An innocent stamp collector, for instance, could be in an acquisitive mood when she goes shopping for stamps on eBay. It can also, however, have nasty, greedy overtones depending on the context in which it is used. You may have noticed the word “acquire” lurking in these words. Acquire derives from the synonymous Latin verb aqcuirere, which has changed little over the years as you can see.

Avarice isn’t just about acquiring lots of stuff, though; it’s also about hoarding it all to yourself and refusing to share with others. The words miserliness, niggardliness, parsimoniousness, and penuriousness all have to do with this other aspect of greediness. A miser is a person who hoards money for its own sake and doesn’t even enjoy it. Ebeneezer Scrooge, from Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol,  is the ultimate miser (at least, until he gets some ghostly visits on Christmas Eve). Even though he is very rich, he refuses to spend money on coal to heat his offices properly, and his own home is shabby, drab, and dark. As the narrator informs us, “Darkness was cheap, and Scrooge liked it.” If a person behaves like a miser, you might call him or his actions miserly, and the quality of being miserly is miserliness. In Latin, miser originally meant wretched. You might also call a miser a skinflint, a pinchpenny, a tightwad, a cheapskate, or a niggard.

A what?! Despite what you may think, the word niggard has absolutely no relation to the denigrating racial epithet that derives from the word “negro.” Niggard comes from the Middle English word nyggard, which in turn came from the old Swedish word nygg, which simply meant stingy. Niggardly is a synonym of miserly, and niggardliness is a synonym of miserliness. The word “negro” came from the Spanish and Portuguese words for the color black, which were in turn were derived from the Latin word for black, niger. Even though the two words have completely different etymologies and meanings, the word niggard has fallen out of use in public speech because it sounds a lot like that other word, although sometimes it still can occur in written language where the distinction between the two words is clear. While this word is most likely disappearing from the English language, the GRE can still test you on it, so you still have to know it.

As a final note on avarice, I offer you this charming song from Gounod’s Faust, in which the demon Mephistopheles encourages the village folk to worship the Golden Calf, a symbol of money and greed from the Old Testament. It’s pretty catchy:

In Catholicism, the heavenly virtue meant to combat the sin of avarice is charity. According to the Roman Catholic Church, charity is not only the action of giving away money and possessions to the poor; the Latin word caritas from which the English word charity is derived is a synonym of the Greek word agape, which in Christian texts refers to universal love for all humanity. Charity is thus a form of love for humanity that is the opposite of the selfishness implied by greed or avarice. Words that relate to the heavenly virtue of charity include philanthropy, altruism, largesse, liberality, and munificence.

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was a Guilded Age steel magnate who gave away the equivalent of 4.8 billion 2010 USD throughout his life to various projects, including Carnegie Hall, Carnegie-Mellon University, and countless public libraries.

Andrew Carnegie (1835-1919) was a Guilded Age steel magnate who gave away the equivalent of 4.8 billion 2010 USD throughout his life to various projects, including Carnegie Hall, Carnegie-Mellon University, and countless public libraries.

A philanthropist is a rich person who gives away lots of money to charity. Philanthropy is this form of charitable giving. Philanthropy derives from the Greek roots philia and anthro. Philia is another Greek word for love (it specifically describes the kind of love that friends have for each other), and anthro means human (anthropology is the study of human cultures, for instance). A philanthropist is thus someone who loves humanity (and shows it by giving away lots of money). A misanthrope, on the other hand, is someone who hates humanity (in Greek, mis- indicates hatred. A misogynist is someone who hates women, for example).

Altruism is, according to the Random House dictionary, the principle or practice of unselfish concern for or devotion to the welfare of others. It was most likely coined by the nineteenth-century French writer Auguste Comte, who derived it from the Latin word alter, or “other.” Altruism is thus “other-ism” as opposed to egoism, which is “I-ism” (ego is the Latin word for “I”). An altruist is thus a person who puts the needs of others before his own needs, and might even go so far as to sacrifice his own well-being in order to help others. Such heroic deeds could be described as altruistic.

An allegory of Charity, presented as a mother by the painter Anthony van Dyck.

An allegory of Charity, presented as a mother by the painter Anthony van Dyck.

Largesse or largess is the generous bestowal of gifts, and this word was originally a French word that came to English in the late 1100s, and was probably first used in the context of feudal relationships. As you might guess, it has the same root as the word “large:” largus, a Latin word meaning ample or generous. Liberality, while it does contain the word “liberal,” is not an inherently political term. The word liberal derives from the Latin word liber, which means free. Back in the day, the word liberal referred to all sorts of qualities having to do with freedom, including freedom of thought and open-mindedness (as in the liberal arts) and freedom with one’s money, or generosity. Later, over the course of the eighteenth century, it came to be associated with proponents of political reforms and especially democratic government. Since then political liberalism has evolved in a number of different directions and can mean many things today, but, as modern political liberals like to point out, the word still carries many of its older meanings as well.

Munificence is the quality of being munificent, or unusually generous. It derives from the Latin word munificus, which means generous, bountiful, liberal. A generous person can be said to be munificent, and an especially generous gift can be said to be munificent as well.

That wraps up our discussion of avarice and charity for today. Remember, if you want even more help with trick GRE Vocab words, you can study them with me or another GRE expert through Test Masters. Until next time, happy studying!


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