Posted by: Casey Lybrand | August 4, 2010

What is equality, and where does it come from (etymologically)?

Okay, so I was working on this whole big thing about rhotic vs. non-rhotic pronunciation. But you know what? My heart is just not in it today. Next week. This week, lets have a quick look at equality. Topical, yes? [1]

The court decision striking down California’s Prop 8 — which is all I can think about today, by the way — is all about equality. But where does that word come from, and what do we mean when we use it? I’m going to look at etymology and everyday usage, not legal terminology. (Mostly because I have some hope of hitting it in the language department, and none whatsoever in the legal department.)

Equality: An Ancient and Enduring Concept

The root word of equality is equal. OED has several entries for the word equal as an adjective — concepts involving numbers, music, and so on use this term. Here are some definitions that best relate to people and equality:

2. a. Possessing a like degree of a (specified or implied) quality or attribute; on the same level in rank, dignity, power, ability, achievement, or excellence; having the same rights or privileges. Const. to, with.

4. a. Of distribution, mixture, etc.: Evenly proportioned. Of rules, laws, conditions, processes, or actions (hence of agents): Affecting all objects in the same manner and degree; uniform in effect or operation (often passing into 5).

And this one:

5. In sense of L. æquus: Fair, equitable, just, impartial. Obs.

That last one is the one we’re going to look at. Because, yes, Latin. That’s how the word comes to us, after all: from the Latin aequus.


Perhaps not surprisingly, given the variety of definitions of equal in English today (remember: numbers, music, etc.) the Latin aequus, from which it is derived, is also one of those words with a number of definitions. For example, it means “even, level, flat” when used to describe a place. “That is equal to another in any quality, equal, like” is more general, and is particularly relevant to what we’re looking at today. Some definitions of aequus pertain to morality:


Of persons, fair, equitable, impartial in conduct toward others

Of things, fair, right, equitable, reasonable

…what is fair, equitable, or just; fairness, equity, or justice

Yup. That’s the word we’re looking for. Wanna see it in Ancient Greek? How about Sanskrit?

Also Equal

ἔοικα – Ancient Greek – “to be like, look like”, “to seem likely”, “to beseem, befit”

ēka – Sanskrit – “one, as if properly, one and uniform”

So there’s that. Scholars don’t seem to be in agreement about how the Greek, Latin, and Sanskrit relate, exactly. But that’s okay. Equal is an old word and an old concept, with a fairly direct transition from Latin into English. Simple in theory.

Let’s hope for a fairly direct resolution to this whole equality issue we’re struggling with when it comes to equal rights under the law. Which, unfortunately, is less than simple in practice.

Just the one this time:

1: Yes. Marriage equality has been “so ordered” in California by a federal judge. This is excellent, but a temporary stay has been issued on the court’s decision. This means the order won’t go into effect until the stay has been lifted. Which may not be until the case reaches the US Supreme Court.

Still, it is a very good decision:

  • Equal protection and due process are affirmed.
  • Gender-based marriage bans violate the US Constitution.
  • Gay people are a “suspect class” — which requires the highest level of scrutiny when looking at discriminatory laws — but the marriage ban would not have stood under “rational scrutiny” (the lowest level of scrutiny).

Looks airtight. Let’s hope the appellate courts agree. Lots of info in this post and at the Prop 8 Trial Tracker in general.


  1. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Lua Fowles, Casey Lybrand. Casey Lybrand said: I look at the etymology of a word every Wednesday on my blog. This week's word? *Equality* […]

  2. Wow never knew the word had Latin origins. Very interesting and informative. Thank you :-)

  3. Thinking about the equal sign in math (=), it means something on one side of the = has the same value as that appearing on the other side, but perhaps stated differently. Equal is equal. I enjoyed your etymology of the word equal. Thank you for sharing.

  4. Alannah, yup. It is pretty much just an Anglicized Latin word. (I knew that — vaguely — but I had to look up the Latin spelling and so on.) Glad you liked the post!

    Carol Ann, “Equal is equal.” That’s a great way of putting it! I’m glad you enjoyed the etymology. I have fun writing these posts.

  5. Casey- you have no idea how helpful (and equally interesting, since I’m a bit of a word freak myself) these posts are for me! I’m a non native speaker, so I’m learning a lot… :)

    “Let’s hope for a fairly direct resolution to this whole equality issue we’re struggling with when it comes to equal rights under the law. Which, unfortunately, is less than simple in practice.”
    This is so true! The concept of ‘equality’ is not something I saw that much when I was practicing… It seemed like no matter what, some folks were ‘more equal’ than the rest.

  6. Oh, I’m so happy, Lua! I’ve found the tiny bit of Latin I’ve studied has helped me with studying other Romance languages. (Alas, most of my knowledge of those languages has atrophied through disuse.) I think it is so cool that you’re multi-lingual. One of my life goals is to acquire another language, and, you know, keep it.

    “More equal” — yeah. That’s how it tends to go, sadly. Which is why we have to keep struggling. I do believe true equality is possible, but there’s a long road ahead. How very interesting your perspective as a lawyer. The law is a lot, but influencing hearts and minds is at least as important. (Perhaps through writing?) ;)

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