I was a Boy Scout in my younger years. Scouting didn’t make much sense to me, but it was at a time in my life when nothing much made any sense, so I don’t really blame them. But you remember the oddest things. I remember, for instance, learning that a scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean, and reverent. A lot of the scouts in my troop didn’t check off all 12 every day—I didn’t, certainly—but I was sitting in memorial service last week and all 12 of them came back to me, in order, as if I had been saying them every day for the intervening 60 years.
Those were unquestionably good traits, as I saw them then. But then I grew up. Worse yet, I went to grad school. And then I developed an appetite for seeing the meanings of words in the context of their language of origin. So now, when I look at the list of Boy Scout aspirations, I think thoughts that would not have been possible for me then and that would make me a poor choice for scoutmaster now.
I wonder, for instance, about the “traits.” What is a trait? This list of characteristics of a Boy Scout was adopted in 1911. The whole collection is called “the Boy Scout Law,” which seems quite daring to me. These are a law? Wow! In 1937, Gordon Allport published the study of traits, for which he was best known. I think it would be fair to say that this way of thinking about people was presupposed in 1911, but was under serious study by 1937. A substantial criticism of “traits” as a good way to think about what people are likely to do was offered by Walter Mischell in 1968, so I think we can no longer say that traits are presumed by the people who study them although they come in very handy in coffee shop conversations.
So, what is a trait? Well, trustworthiness, (the first of the two desirata to come to us from Old Norse—thrifty is the other) is a trait. It means that I can be trusted. I am trustworthy. But what if I am, like most people, absolutely trustworthy in this circumstance, probably trustworthy in that circumstance, and a poor bet in some other setting. Am I trustworthy?
Or, to ask the same question another way, are “traits” a good way to think about what people will do? Would it be better to look at the settings first? Say I am a former smoker. What are the odds that I will continue to refrain from smoking when I go to the old hangouts and spend time with the guys I used to smoke with? Not good, I would think. The chances are better if I make new (nonsmoking) friends and go to new settings to spend time with them.
Let’s look at helpful. Would you expect me to “help” someone who needed help? Yes? So I’m “helpful.” Would you expect that I would provide: a) the help I think this person needs or, b) the help he wants, presuming that he might want something different? Am I helpful in both cases? And in our time, “enablers” are thought to be bad people so I can say I am helping this person and you can say I am only enabling her to do something she will regret. Am I helping? Or let’s say that supporting a person in his efforts to chart his own course is “helpful,” apart from whether he makes good or bad decisions. Do you want to say it is “unhelpful” if his decisions don’t work out? I don’t think you do want to say that.
Helpful turns out to be complicated. Let me tell you that friendly and reverent aren’t any better.
Further, some trait names just beg the question. Loyal is good, I suppose. Loyal to whom? Are some loyalties good and others bad? Is “loyal” good and “disloyal” bad? If the law wants you to take one course and your family needs for you to take another course, where does “loyalty” push you? Just asking.
Now I don’t expect any of these nasty questions to be resolved by looking at the language of origin, but I do think that we can look at these words more carefully and more usefully be seeing where they were before they came to us. We don’t need, in other words, to accept the cultural contexts in which their meanings were clarified, but it is probably a good idea to know what they are.
I’m going to start with the Old Norse trait names first –trustworthy and thrifty. Then I’ll move to the Old English names—helpful, friendly, kind, cheerful, and clean. And I’ll finish up with Latin, mostly arriving here through forms adopted by the French—loyal, courteous, obedient, brave (through Italian), and reverent. I plan to take a year doing this, so you can afford to get comfy.
 All English words are immigrants. There appears to have been a sort of linguistic Ellis Island where words wanting to become part of the English language, stopped and declared the land of their origin and possibly the land from which they came just before arriving here.
 In the intervening years, most of my contact with the Boy Scouts as come from Boy Scouts of America v. Dale, in which the Supreme Court slapped the Boy Scouts on the wrist for claiming that the first amendment rights of free speech could be stretched to their denial of troop leadership to gay scoutmasters.