January 31, 2016 by Paula Reed Nancarrow
These days you don’t need a dictionary to get a definition for contentment. You just need a search engine.
A box will come up when you use Google search, telling you the basics – that contentment is “a state of happiness and satisfaction.” You don’t even have to click through to Webster or dictionary.com. You will learn that the synonyms for contentment are contentedness, content (don’t these seem like cheating to you?), satisfaction, gratification, fulfillment, happiness, pleasure, and cheerfulness.
If you click “more,” you’ll get a few additional synonyms – ease, comfort, well-being, peace, equanimity, serenity, tranquility. But if you dig into the denotations and connotations of these synonyms (as we will next month), you will find thing are not so simple as the little box makes them appear. Even two examples of using contentment in a sentence are fraught with potential conflict.
He found contentment in living a simple life in the country.
Finally being alone brought her a contentment she’d never known.
One wonders if he and she ever cross paths in their respective contentments.
We even get etymology and translation in this neat little box.
The word comes from late Middle English (denoting the payment of a claim): from French contentement, and from the Latin contentus. The derivation of contentious, on the other hand, is also from late Middle English, by a different route: from Old French contentieux, from Latin contentiosus, from content-‘striven,’ from the verb contendere. How odd, that two words which look so similar could mean such completely opposite things.
You can then translate contentment into one of more than 50 languages, from Afrikaans (tevredenheid) to Yiddish (צופרידנקייַט). There are some issues here, too – try getting that little box to translate contentment into Armenian, Hmong, or Zulu, for example – but that’s for another post.
At the bottom of the module is a depiction of the Google Ngram, which provides a graphic of the use of the word contentment in books in English from 1800 to 2008.
The word apparently peaked in the early 1840’s, with works like Simeon Ashe’s A Treatise on Divine Contentment (1840); The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment by the Reverend Jeremiah Burroughs, a book of sermons reprinted in 1840, but originally published in 1655; and The Art of Contentment (1841) by Richard Allestree and Lady Dorothy Coventry. I had no idea my last blog post had copped its subtitle from a work of Christian piety.
In the 1840s, contentment was apparently much on the minds of devout Christians. There are a series of tracks published by Sunday Schools, including How to be Happy, Though Poor, Or, Christian Contentment, from ‘Advice to Cottagers,’ published in 1843; and Contentment and Discontent, from the Religious Tract Society of Great Britain. From the states you find The Aged Pequot, or Gratitude and Contentment, a four page pamphlet published by the Sunday School Union of the Methodist Episcopal Church. Given the decimation of the Pequot Indians by epidemic and war in the 17th century, that’s going to take some unpacking later on as well.
Although the graph has a few ups and down from the 1840’s on, the general trajectory of the term in published works is downward from there.
There’s been something of an uptick since 2000, more so in books published in the United States than in Britain. This is something you can see for yourself by searching for books in American versus British English. Perhaps it’s because we’re more into the self-help stuff on this side of the pond.
However, when the books that make up the curve are checked, at the top are the same books for both countries – Neil Clark Warren’s Finding Contentment (2005), Lydia Brownback’s Contentment: A Godly Woman’s Adornment (2008), and Richard H. Palmquist’s Einstein, Money and Contentment (2005). The last one is going on my list for the sake of the title alone.
The other book that shows up on the first page of the ngram results for the years 2000+ is yet another reprint of Jeremiah Burroughs’ sermons. Traditional piety apparently never goes out of style. Nor would Lydia Brownback’s title have been out-of-place during the peak usage of the word “contentment.”
I am not at all hopeful that angels are going to descend down a ladder with the rest of this year’s blog.
Nevertheless, I intend to persist. Perhaps out of sheer cussedness. Which may do more to explain the relationship between contentment and contentiousness than etymology ever can.
How do you define contentment? What are you searching for in the word?