Final Word

Davos, living room of the global human family


Last week’s meeting of the World Economic Forum (WEF) in picturesque Davos, Switzerland, could be described as a family meeting of the broad human family to improve cooperation between its rivalling siblings, competing for shares in the family’s fortune.

There can be little doubt that there are increasing tensions in the ‘family’, with especially two of the strongest members, the United States and China, squaring up to each other for control over the family fortune – otherwise known as the global ‘economy’.

Just about two years ago we had a look at the origin of the term ‘political economy’, which, in the sense of being “the management of economic affairs”, has its root in a work from 1440, possibly composed in a monastery.

With all the hustle and bustle coming from Davos last week, we took another look at the origin of ‘economy’ and the meaning and origin of ‘forum’, which then inspired the metaphors in the introduction to this week’s column.

‘Economy’ and ‘home’

The words ‘economy’ and ‘economics’ arrived in late Middle English (late 16th century) via Old French and Latin from the Greek word ‘oikonomikos’, denoting the management of the affairs of a household. Unpacking the components of the word, we learn it is a merging of ‘οἶκος’ (‘oikos’) meaning ‘house’ and ‘νόμος ‘(‘nomos’), meaning ‘custom’ or ‘law’.

An economist is then someone skilled in the management of the affairs of the household according to the ‘rules of the house’.

The idea of studying the economies of states in the sense of production and trade in relation to law, custom and government policy developed in the 18th century and was termed ‘political economy’, from the French term ‘économie politique’, first used in 1615.

An article on Wikipedia, tells us that in “the late 19th century, the term economics came to replace political economy, coinciding with the publication of an influential textbook by Alfred Marshall in 1890. Earlier, William Stanley Jevons, a proponent of mathematical methods applied to the subject, advocated economics for brevity and with the hope of the term becoming ‘the recognised name of a science’.”

Jevons’s wish largely became true, although the original term survived in the narrower sense, especially on the back of Adam Smith’s book, The Wealth of Nations, published in 1776. It is still regarded as the bible of the free market philosophy.

And, by the way, it is from the work of Smith that we get the concept of “gross national product” as a measurement of national wealth based on its total production and commerce.

‘Forum’ and ‘home’

The term ‘forum’, especially when used in the context of an international gathering like the WEF, takes us back to the notion that humanity, spread across the globe, is one big family, sharing the same economic home.

‘Forum’ arrived in the mid-15th century in late Middle English from Latin. In the sense of an assembly place for public discussion it was first recorded in the 1680s.

In ancient Rome, it indicated a place of assembly or a marketplace, open space, public place, “apparently, akin to ‘foris’, ‘foras’, meaning out of doors, outside, from PIE (Proto-Indo-European) root ‘dhwer’, meaning door or doorway”.

However, its ultimate original use was denoting an enclosure (outdoors) surrounding a house.

by Piet Coetzer

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