I discovered an interesting bit of etymology recently. I was reading SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome by Mary Beard. In a chapter about work and business, she mentioned a Latin word – otium.
Used in Ancient Rome to refer to the ideal state of humanity, it can roughly be translated as being in control of one’s time. Business of any kind was seen as the opposite of this state, an annoying intrusion that occupies your time when you’d rather it didn’t. Business was therefore portrayed as “not otium,” constructed in Latin by adding the negative prefix neg-… negotium.
It’s not hard to see here the origin of the word to negotiate, and its related forms, as well as words in other languages like the Italian negozio (shop/store). And it’s not surprising, either, that these words would derive from the Latin word for business.
What’s interesting though is how looking at the origin of the word highlights just how the long the journey a word takes can be. And that’s especially true when we think of the different ways we can now use the word to negotiate. Of course there are still the obviously business-related uses of the word, which have extended into other spheres, such as politics. But the word’s also taken on much more figurative meanings, and can be used in many contexts to generally refer to dealing with something. In motorsports, for example, commentators often refer to drivers negotiating tricky corners. And the meaning hasn’t changed that much really. If you’re negotiating something, you’re dealing with some kind of obstacle to a desired state.
And all this stemming from an Ancient Roman sense of an ideal life – otium. It’s a long way from there to negotiating the pitfalls of modern life. But there’s something quite poignant in the sense that something of that ancient sense of what life should be like lingers on over 2,000 years later.