Tom gave up the brush with reluctance in his face, but alacrity in his heart.~ from The Adventures of Tom Sawyer
Alacrity is in short supply these days, I think. Perhaps it’s the general malaise of this year, 2020, but this word has lodged itself into my mind over the past couple of days.
Our youngest, very recently 12 years old, is re-reading Tom Sawyer. That’s the mark of a genuine bibliophile, I’m told; this propensity to re-read beloved books. This makes me happy. As she was reading, she inquired of me to confirm that her understanding of the word alacrity was correct: “Does alacrity mean cheerfulness?”
I confirmed that it does, but I also knew that there was something more to the word than simple cheerfulness. So I went on an etymological dig, as any word sleuth would do! First, there was the basic definition to consider. From Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary:
Alacrity: promptness in response: cheerful readiness
The phrase cheerful readiness is interesting, because it evokes a zeal to do a thing. Zeal feels as if it is in short supply these days. Maybe it’s all the months of restricted activity? When do we see alacrity on display?
I suppose one would accept a party invitation with alacrity. One might open a gift with alacrity as well. Etymology online offers more insight into the origins and meaning of the word:
“liveliness, briskness,” mid-15c., from Latin alacritatem (nominative alacritas) “liveliness, ardor, eagerness,” from alacer (genitive alacris) “cheerful, brisk, lively;” a word of uncertain origin. Perhaps cognate with Gothic aljan “zeal,” Old English ellen “courage, zeal, strength,” Old High German ellian. But de Vaan suggests the root sense is “to wander, roam” and a possible connection with ambulare.
The implication is that alacrity is to move -the Latin ambulare– not only with cheerful readiness, which is the perfect description of Tom Sawyer as he relinquished his paintbrush. However, being an old school, “life is duty” type of soul, I wondered if it couldn’t mean something more. Its origins also seem to imply moving with zeal, liveliness, and courage.
I’ve written at length about the evolution of language in modern and postmodern times, so I’ll try not to read too much into the etymological roots of a word when its evolution clearly indicates a shift has taken place. Nevertheless, it is possible to apply alacrity in ways beyond eagerly moving towards pleasure or relief.
How often do we jump in with alacrity to assist someone with an arduous job? If not, why don’t we? Do we exhibit a “cheerful readiness” to sacrifice something of ourselves in service to others? What does that look like, and how rare (or common) is it?
Just a few random thoughts. Thank you for joining me partway through the maze of my gray matter in search of the meanings and implications of words.
Now more than ever, it is important that we know what words mean and the power they possess.