Word of the Day: Halcyon

Word of the Day

Today’s word of the day, courtesy of the Oxford English Dictionary, is halcyon. If you have ever heard this word in conversation or seen this word in print, you probably heard or read it used as an adjective, and probably in the expression “those halcyon days.” I know that’s true for me. So I was surprised when I read that the word can be used as a noun as well as an adjective.

According to the OED, when used as a noun, halcyon means, “In classical mythology: a bird, usually identified as a kingfisher, which brooded around the time of the winter solstice in a nest floating on the sea, charming the wind and waves into calm. In later use also (chiefly poetic): a kingfisher, esp. the common kingfisher, Alcedo atthis.” It can also mean, “A period of calm, happiness, or prosperity; (as a mass noun) calm, tranquillity. Also: a period of calm or pleasant weather.” When used as an adjective, it means, “Of a period of time: characterized by peace, happiness, prosperity, or success; (of a situation, condition, state, etc.) calm, tranquil; carefree.”

There is currently a debate about the relative amount of violence in the world today versus in years past. Will Koehrsen, on his website www.towardsdatascience.com, lays out the argument pretty well. He cites Steven Pinker’s recent book The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence has Declined (2011) as a source for the assertion that violence has diminished, and he cites several Pinker critics. Here is his conclusion: “Initially, after reading Pinker’s book, I was convinced by his thesis. However, after taking the time to dig through the facts myself, a more nuanced picture emerged, one where sensationalist conflicts on both sides are not warranted. I see reasons for optimism: decreasing rates of deaths in armed conflicts mean a human alive today is less likely to die in battle than in recorded history, no battles between major powers since 1953, and a reduction in overall battle deaths since the 1950s, as well as reasons for pessimism: democracy and international trade, so important for reducing major conflicts, appear to be on a decline in recent years.”

While the data are important, I think Koehrsen leaves out one important factor, and that is the apparent attitude of people. For instance, Ellen Mitchell of The Hill wrote back in August (https://thehill.com/policy/defense/458431-combat-deaths-in-afghanistan-reach-a-five-year-high) that 2019 saw the highest number of US casualties in Afghanistan in five years: 14. As of July 2018, there were over 2300 deaths of US military personnel in the 17 years of our Afghanistan war, with over 1,800 of them due to hostile action on the part of our enemies. In addition, over 1,700 US military contractors have died. But in Vietnam, in 14 years (1961 to 1975), more of our soldiers died every year from 1965 to 1970 than in the entire 17 years of Afghanistan. All told, almost 60,000 American soldiers died in Vietnam. A year of just 14 deaths would have been a cause for celebration had it elicited a news article at all. So it’s our attitude toward violence that has changed, not just the data.

According to the World Bank, “The world has made tremendous progress in reducing extreme poverty. The percentage of people living in extreme poverty globally fell to a new low of 10 percent in 2015 — the latest number available — down from 11 percent in 2013, reflecting continued but slowing progress. The number of people living on less than $1.90 a day fell during this period by 68 million to 736 million. 

“Despite the tremendous progress in reducing extreme poverty, rates remain stubbornly high in low-income countries and those affected by conflict and political upheaval. In the 25 years from 1990 to 2015, the extreme poverty rate dropped an average of a percentage point per year – from nearly 36% to 10%. But the rate dropped only one percentage point in the two years from 2013 to 2015. In fact, the total number of poor in Sub-Saharan Africa has been increasing. In 2015, more extreme poor lived in that region than in the rest of the world combined.  By 2030, under all but the most optimistic scenarios, poverty will remain in double digits in Sub-Saharan Africa” (https://www.worldbank.org/en/topic/poverty/overview).

10% seems terrible, and the fact that people live in extreme poverty is sad. However, look at this tidbit from the Center for Economic and Policy Research: “Consider that in 1800, by a $1.90 per day standard, 81 percent of people worldwide were in poverty. One-hundred-ninety years later, only 44 percent were in poverty — a reduction of less than one-fifth of a percentage point per year. By contrast, in the 28 years since 1990, the rate of $1.90 per day poverty fell by more than 1.2 percentage points per year to less than 10 percent” (https://cepr.shorthandstories.com/history-poverty/).

What I’m trying to convey is simple. By a variety of metrics, people in the world today are better off than at any time in human history. People have more stuff, more food, and more security than ever. In short, no matter what kind of doom and gloom you are subjected to, no matter how loud the prophecies of impending disaster, these are the halcyon days.

The image comes from the Greek Myths and Mythology page (https://www.greekmyths-greekmythology.com/the-myth-of-halcyon-the-halcyon-days/).