Word Nerd Thursday

by Voni Harris 1-5-11

What is the difference between contentment and complacency? On the request of my husband, we will take a Word Nerd microscope to these two words.

 The adjective content (emphasis on the last syllable) is actually related to the noun content (emphasis on the first syllable). They come from Latin com/con-, which means “with,” and a form of ­tenere, meaning “to hold.” The English word contain comes from the same two roots. So if you are content, you are filled, satisfied, with what you have. The noun describes being physically filled, while the adjective describes being spiritually filled.

So now we turn to complacent. It comes from the Latin com-/con-, meaning “with,” and the Latin verb placere, “to be pleasing.” I just learned (which is why I’m a Word Nerd) that com-/con- can also be an intensifier, which is the case with complacent. So, if you are complacent, you are really, really pleased, “content to a fault,” as the American Heritage Dictionary says.

On the same page of the dictionary: while complacent has to do with being pleased, complaisant has to do with a willingness to be agreeable.

So why two words? Well, I looked in the Webster’s New World AND the American Heritage Dictionary AND the Random House College Dictionary. In all three, there was one word in the definition of complacent that was not in the definition of content, and that was the word self. That caught my attention as a Christian Word Nerd. Complacency is a self-satisfaction. Contentment is being happy with what you have, with what God has given you.

With that in mind, I’d say contentment shows a willingness to truly enjoy what you have been given, while complacency shows a willingness to rest on your laurels, to be a couch potato.

In an interesting side-note, when I looked it up in the online 1828 Noah Webster dictionary, it had only complaisant, with the definition of affability I mentioned already. I wonder when the word took a wrong turn into selfishness?

Let’s not do the same thing, eh?