A few months ago, I had a problem with bugs in my bushes. So I made a trip to my friendly lawn and garden store and explained my problem. An associate at the store reached up and pulled off a bottle off the shelf. “You need a systemic pesticide. This will take care of it for you.”
I consider myself to be somewhat of a master of the English language. I try to use words like “ubiquitous” and “esoteric” in everyday conversation just to keep people around me on their toes. But I absolutely hate admitting in public that I have no idea what’s going on. So there was no way that I was going to admit that I didn’t know what “systemic” meant.
Assuming the store clerk knew more than I did, I bought the potion, sprayed it on my plants, and the bugs curled up and melted away. Oh well, who needs linguistics when chemistry works?
Some time after that, I heard some people talking at work about their bug problems at home. “What you need is a systemic pesticide”, I overheard. Hmmm... Well, I still don’t know what it means, but it must have something to do with killing bugs. So that’s good enough for me. I filed it away in my brain with the definition of other horticultural things and went on with my life.
A few days ago, I was listening to some political commentary on the radio. The analyst said that corruption in Congress was “systemic”.
Waitaminnit. What does pesticide have to do with Congress? Obviously, there is more to this word than I originally thought. This demands some investigation.
I discovered that “systemic” comes from the original Greek word that means “to combine” and is related to other English words such as “system” and “synergy”. They all have something to do with the bringing together of disparate things so that they act together. Makes sense.
In agriculture, a “systemic” pesticide is one that is absorbed into the sap of a plant or the bloodstream of an animal which is harmless to the host but which renders it toxic to invaders. As an extension, it can be applied to anything that is rampant throughout an organization to the degree that it affects the body in general — such as the usage when applied to corruption in Congress.
The Tower of Babel aside, human language is essentially an invention of, well, humans. As such, it is an imperfect creation, but one that is rich in history, tradition, and culture. English as we speak it today has only been around for a few hundred years. Deciphering the language of our Founding Fathers only 250 years ago can be somewhat of a challenge.
But that’s part of the charm of the language. There is a wonderful serendipity that results when we discover that the same word can be used in reference to pests in the garden as well as to pests in politics. And we can trace it all back to ancient Greece.
I hope I never learn everything there is to know about English. It would be a shame to think that I already know it all and that there are no more mysteries waiting to be unraveled.