Word Of The Week: November 28th, 2009.

With Thanksgiving over, students now have only a few short weeks of classes left and final exams for the semester to look forward to. When I was in college one of the professors taught a course in existentialism. The final exam consisted of one word: Why? The only person in the class to get a perfect score turned in an answer that consisted of just two words: Why not?

The word why is one of the shortest, commonest, and yet most loaded words in English–and probably in any other language as well. Asking “Why?” seems to sum up everything about us, especially if you agree with Heidegger who said human nature is in the form of a question. Curiosity isn’t limited to humans–or even to primates–and the capacity for such abstract thought may not be either, but being able to ask “Why?” implies both awareness of and dissatisfaction with the surrounding environment. And being dissatisfied is the inspiration for changing the surrounding environment.

The Oxford English Dictionary‘s etymology for why traces it all the way back to Indo-European, and, while we’ll never know, it wouldn’t surprise me if why–or some other word with the same meaning–were one of the oldest words in spoken language. The OED also has the interesting word whydunit, which is one of those words that doesn’t get nearly enough use. The definition of whydunit is, as you can probably guess, “A story, play, or film in which the main interest lies in the detection of the motive for some crime or other action.”

So it’s different from a whodunit in that–I assume–the criminal may already be known, the question is really why the crime was committed. Stephen King’s Dolores Claiborne is a good example of a whydunit. I know not every crime can be prevented, but it seems to me that understanding why most crimes are committed is at least as important as who committed them. Understanding the motive can, in some cases, allow for preventive steps to be taken before the same crime is committed again.