This past weekend an ex-girlfriend of mine – whom I still greatly respect and therefore do not refer to as an “old girl friend” as one sometimes tends to do – visited us accompanied by her significant other. As often happens in our home the conversation at some point drifted in the direction of the origin of words and expressions. In the process the interesting term “fidelity” came up.
When everybody else had gone to bed I started digging around to see what could be uncovered about this term. It was an interesting and tantalising journey of discovery.
What soon became clear was that the word and concept of fidelity does not only mean different things to different people but its meaning in any given situation is highly dependant on that context.
This is illustrated by some of the other English words from the same root, which include: fiducial, faith, confidence, fiancé and fiancée among others.
The root of the word is the Latin fidēlis, meaning faithful or loyal. Latin also had the closely related word fidelitas or faithfulness, which is a pledge of allegiance by one person to another.
The most common and widespread example of the invocation of fidelity as a pledge of allegiance between two people is the institution of marriage. It typically starts with a pledge when two people exchange their individual status of singledom for that of being each other's fiancé.
The next step is the marriage in which the status of being a fiancé moves on to one of being each other's spouse. The word spouse, in turn, has its root in the Latin word “spōnsus” which, surprise, surprise, also means pledged.
Just to make sure that the end of absolute individual freedom arrives with this change in married status, the marriage ceremony is underpinned by the two individuals exchanging vows, which are solemn promises, pledges, or personal commitments. The root of the word vow is the Latin vōtus or vōtum which means dedication.
From vōtum the word vovēre is derived, meaning a, and to make a, solemn promise.
If the people who embark on this marital journey still have any doubts about the implications of the new status that comes with it, they should consider the fact that in more modern times fidelity is also related to the concept of fealty, which also derives from the Latin, fidēlis, and is given as a synonym for fidelity by most sources.
More importantly, fidelity, in its original meaning, implied duty to a lord or king and an oath of fealty which, as in marriage, was a pledge of allegiance of one person to another. It was also, as in a wedding ceremony, made upon a religious object such as a Bible or saint's relic, often contained within an altar, thus binding the oath taker before God.
And, just to make sure we all get the point, let me quote from Wikipedia: “In medieval Europe, fealty was sworn between two people, the obliged person (vassal) and a person of rank (lord). This was done as part of a formal commendation ceremony to create a feudal relationship.”
But then there will always be those cynics among us, like the American editorialist, journalist, short story writer and satirist Ambrose Bierce who said that fidelity is “a virtue peculiar to those who are about to be betrayed”.
The stage and film actor, director, screenwriter and playwright Sacha Guitry had the following advice on the subject, “An ideal wife is one who remains faithful to you but tries to be just as charming as if she weren't."
During the course of the weekend, with my ex-girlfriend visiting, my imagination ran wild, speculating on why she suggested the word fidelity to be considered for “Final word”.
Initially, I thought that the famous author Oscar Wilde was right on the button when he wrote: “People who love only once in their lives are shallow people. What they call their loyalty, and their fidelity, I call either the lethargy of custom or their lack of imagination. Faithfulness is to the emotional life what consistency is to the life of the intellect -- simply a confession of failures."
But then reality set in and I realised that maybe the final word also belongs to Wilde with another wisdom: “What a fuss people make about fidelity! Why, even in love it is purely a question for physiology. It has nothing to do with our own will. Young men want to be faithful, and are not; old men want to be faithless, and cannot: that is all one can say."