"Honesty" - a frank look at the word

Seth Lobis | Posted on 04/01/07

One would do well, writing a history of the word “hon­esty,” simply to refer others to the three chapters devoted to “honest” in William Empson’s marvelous book The Structure of Complex Words (1951). In the middle chapter, entitled “Honest Numbers,” Empson gives his own dictionary-style entry for “honest,” meant to remedy the deficiencies of the entry found in the New English Dictionary, the ancestor of the Oxford English Dictionary. Aiming to capture senses, “feelings,” and the interactions between the two, Empson introduces a taxonomic “scheme” that includes not only the familiar numbers and letters of the NED (and of the current OED) but also exclamation points, forward slashes, plus and minus signs, and — most eye-catchingly — British pound signs, which refer to what he calls “Moods.” Empson identifies two primary, or “head,” senses of “honest”: “not lying, not stealing, keeping promises” and “deserving and receiving social honour,” or “1” and “2,” respectively. His “3” and “4” are the “patronizing Mood,” as in “£3+ He deserves praise for these minor virtues,” and the “hearty Mood,” as in “4/+ [He is] a reliable member of our set.” The symbols, which Empson refers to somewhat archly as his “little bits of machinery,” create a rather Borgesian effect, but the lexical work is wonderfully subtle and precise. Empson shows us the word in the world, where speech and class are closely bound up. The chapter seems finally an exercise in lexicographic honesty.

My brief history of “honesty,” modest by comparison, will confine itself to the noun form. What interests me in particular is the relationship between “honesty” and “honor,” the older of the two and the one closer to the root. “Honesty” derives from the Old French (h)oneste, which in turn derives from the Latin honestas. The Latin noun was formed from the adjective honestus, likely deriving from honos, “honor,” which is of uncertain etymology. The Roman linguist Varro suggested onus, “burden,” as the root of honos, as if honor weighs us down morally. In his encyclopedic work Etymologiae, likely composed in the seventh century of the Common Era, Isidore of Seville defined honestas as honor perpetuus, literally “perpetual honor,” and then more straightforwardly as honoris status, “the condition or state of honor.” Around 1930, the classical philologist T. G. Tucker suggested that the root of honos was *ghen-, to “make big, full,” but a definitive derivation remains elusive. The first definition of honestas given by the Oxford Latin Dictionary is “Title to respect, honourableness, honour,” followed by “Moral rectitude, integrity,” in which sense it was frequently opposed to utilitas, “expediency.” Cicero refers to a dissensio, or conflict, between the two, and Horace praises Lollius for preferring the honestum to the utile. Less frequently honestas was used in the sense of “Decency, seemliness,” one of the early secondary senses of “honesty” in English.

In the fourteenth century, when it first appeared in English, “honesty” was very close semantically to “honor.” In the earliest attestation given by the OED, from Brunne’s Chronicle (completed around 1340), the noun “honeste” denotes “Honour conferred or done; respect.” This is also the sense of “honeste” in 1 Corinthians 12:23 as it appeared in Wyclif’s Bible, a late-fourteenth-century English translation of the Vulgate. The point of the final clause of the verse, “and tho membris that ben vnhonest han more honeste,” is that we show the body’s more shameful-seeming members more respect. The word “honeste” appears elsewhere in Wyclif’s Bible in the sense of “Honour gained by action or conduct; reputation, credit, good name.” Thus it was possible — at least until the end of the sixteenth century — to lament the loss of one’s honesty. “Honor” has been used continuously in this sense from the beginning of the thirteenth century.

“Honeste” was also current in the fourteenth century, according to the OED, in the sense of “Honourable character,” both “in a wide general sense, including all kinds of moral excellence worthy of honour,” and in the specific sense of “Chastity; the honour or virtue of a woman,” which appears to originate with Chaucer. Slightly later “honeste” assumed the sense of another virtue, “Generosity, liberality, hospitality.” In Shakespeare’s Timon of Athens, the title character freely shares all that he has with his friends, only to be refused by them in his time of need. “Every man has his fault,” Lucullus says of Timon, “and honesty is his.”

In the mid-sixteenth century, “honesty” was first used in what the OED refers to as the “prevailing modern sense” — “Uprightness of disposition and conduct; integrity, truthfulness, straightforwardness: the quality opposed to lying, cheating, or stealing.” At that time two other senses unattested in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were current. “Honesty” could denote “Honourable position or estate; high rank; respectability” and, less commonly, “Honourable or respectable people,” as in “the honesty,” a collocation rife with Mood, in Empson’s sense. The earliest attestation of the “modern” sense is from John Lyly’s Euphues (1578), famous for the mannered style that became known as “euphuism.” The OED’s example, which I will quote from the 1578 edition, appears on the penultimate page: “Yet hath he showen himselfe as farre from honestie as he is from age, and as full of crafte as he is of courage.” This construction hearkens back to the first instance of “honesty” in the work: “Father and friende (your age sheweth the one, your honestie the other) I am neither so suspitious to mistrust your good will, nor so sottishe to mislike your good counsaile.” Age and honesty should, Lyly implies, go hand in hand. (Why is it then that so many of us lie about our age?)

Remarkably, “honesty” appears forty-four times in Euphues, and in a full third of those instances Lyly sets “honesty” alongside “honor.” “Ah fonde wench,” Lucilla chastises herself, “doste thou thincke Euphues will deeme thee constant to him, when thou hast bene vnconstant to his friende? Weenest thou that he will haue no mistrust of thy faithfulnesse, when he hath had tryall of thy fycklenesse? Will he haue doubt of thyne honour, when thou thy selfe callest thyne honestie in question?” That is, will he doubt your chastity, and the reputation that goes with it, when you yourself have cast doubt on your truthfulness? This passage is characteristically “euphuistic,” with its “recurrence of antithetic clauses, in which the antithesis is emphasized by means of alliteration” (OED 1). In the letters to his friends that make up the final section of Euphues, the title character increasingly opposes honor and honesty; next to the latter, the former seems less essential, more adventitious. “By how much the more thou excellest others in honors,” Euphues writes to Philautus, “by so muche the more thou oughtest to exceede them in honestie.” One’s honors, in the sense of titles and tokens, should be matched by one’s honesty. To the exiled Botonio Euphues writes, “Better it is for thee to live with honesty in the country then with honour in the court” — yet another alliterative antithesis. One final example: “wilt thou haue the tytle of his honour and no touch of his honestie?” So Euphues reminds the aristocratic wastrel Alcius of his father’s true nobility.

“Honesty” and “honor” come together climactically — and tragically — at the end of Othello, which appeared some twenty-five years after Euphues. After Montano disarms him, Othello laments,


I am not valiant neither;
But every puny whipster gets my sword.
But why should honor outlive honesty?
Let it go all.


In the third and final of his “honest” chapters, devoted to Othello, Empson paraphrases these lines: “I have lost my civilian reputation, because the killing of my wife has turned out unjust; why then should I care about my military reputation, which depends on keeping my sword?” Empson I think rightly suggests that Othello personifies honor in the play and Iago honesty. Or, rather, Iago “persona-fies” honesty; that is, he wears it like a mask — the etymological sense of the Latin persona — deceiving Othello and others. Yet what makes the matter of Iago’s honesty so complex is that in his soliloquies Iago removes the mask for us; he becomes honest about his dishonesty. At the end of the play Othello must come to terms with the maddening fact that Desdemona was honest, not “honest Iago.” It becomes clear, in other words, that she personifies honesty — both chastity and truthfulness. The devastating poignancy of these lines, it seems to me, is that Othello is really saying, “But why should I outlive her?” Having destroyed Desdemona, he has destroyed what she represents. Othello leaves it finally to others to resurrect a dead virtue: “Speak of me as I am. Nothing extenuate, / Nor set down aught in malice. Then must you speak / Of one that loved not wisely, but too well.” Those who remain must speak the honest truth.

After the middle of the seventeenth century the lexical skein of “honor” and “honesty” began to unravel, as the older senses of the latter fell into disuse. But the relationship between the two terms remained close. In Sense and Sensibility Elinor Dashwood is deeply distressed by Lucy’s “superior claims” on her beloved Edward, yet is “firmly resolved to act by her as every principle of honour and honesty directed.” Later in the novel Elinor applies the narrator’s terms to her sister Marianne, whose relationship with the spendthrift Willoughby has ended: “Your sense of honour and honesty would have led you, I know, when aware of your situation, to attempt all the economy that would appear to
you possible.” Willoughby, Elinor’s empha­sis makes clear, has no such sense. The pairing of “honour” and “honesty,” like that of “sense” and “sensibility,” is more than merely a euphonious, or euphuistic, pun; it conveys an ethical ideal, the ideal of one who lives both wisely and well.