I always liked that bumper sticker. It sounds right, but the definitions don’t fit – and sometimes that is exactly what the problem is.
So let’s talk about peace.
Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary has a lot of definitions for peace including: a state of tranquility or quiet, harmony in personal relations, a state or period of mutual concord between governments, an agreement to end a war. I think when English-speakers contemplate peace, they tend to think that all is well with the world and it is good.
Semitic languages work on a 3-or-4-letter root system. When new immigrants learn Hebrew in Israel, we’re taught that words with the same roots may not exactly have the same meaning, but once we know the root we can figure out the meaning based on context.
Pages from the Hebrew book of roots.
In Hebrew, peace is shalom based on the root Shin-Lamed-Mem (שלם). Other words with שלם include: l’shalem to pay a bill, mushlam complete or perfect, hishtalmut advanced training, shalem whole.
So here’s a philosophical question: Does the English definition of peace match any of the definitions in the family of meanings for Shin-Lamed-Mem?
Let me add another quote. Israel has often been criticized for the “cold peace” with Egypt. The common wisdom in Israel is “better a cold peace than a hot war.”
Harmony, tranquility, and agreement don’t pay bills, complete anything, or provide advanced training. However, if you see peace as a state of balance, then it all fits together. Balance doesn’t necessarily mean that everyone is happily floating around on clouds playing harps, but it does mean that what you put in, you will get in return. Everyone is at the same level.
And what about that advanced training? When you learn more, you become more whole as a person.
To continue the philosophical conversation, let’s turn to Arabic, another Semitic language. I should say at the outset that in several places I read that words with the same Arabic root are not meant to be understood as being part of the same family of meanings. Also, being a Semitic language doesn’t mean that all words with similar roots have similar meanings. However, I’m not a linguist; I’m just positing a few ideas about language in a philosophical way.
Peace in Arabic is salaam, with an S-L-M root. Other words with a similar root include:
The article is careful to note that Islam – while appearing with the same root – is not to be equated with peace, but rather submission (to Allah). But as I said above, this is a philosophical musing.
In the family of words with the S-L-M root, many of them relate to submission and surrender. Merriam-Webster tells us that submission can be an act of humility and surrender can be to giving yourself over to the power of another. Tanning leather could fit because the animal skin needs to be shaped into the form chosen by the tanner. The other meaning is to be saved from danger. And if you look from the point of view of the snake, it is saving itself from danger by attacking.
Now let’s bring our English speakers, Hebrew speakers, and Arabic speakers into the same room and talk about peace, shalom, and salaam. Or perhaps we should try to be more accurate: the English speakers are talking about harmony and agreement, the Hebrew speakers are talking about balance and equality, and the Arabic speakers are talking about submission and safety.
It’s really no wonder that all the talking and not understanding results in more violins and less whirled peas.