In a Word: The Good, the Bad, and the Ambitious

Ambition today is generally considered a positive trait, but that wasn’t always the case.

A goldfish with a shark fin tied to his head.
Romolo Tavani / Shutterstock

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Managing editor and logophile Andy Hollandbeck reveals the sometimes surprising roots of common English words and phrases. Remember: Etymology tells us where a word comes from, but not what it means today.

Ancient Roman politicians running for public office approached elections in much the same way that modern politicians do, by speaking directly to citizens. Today, people running for office have many ways to get their message out to voters — TV and radio ads, social media, print mail, email newsletters — but you’ll still find them and their representatives out and about, just like ancient Roman candidates did, knocking on doors and talking to the people who can vote them into office.

(Those Roman politicians could be identified by their white togas. Read “A Candidate as White as Snow” to find out why and how those white togas led to the English word candidate.)

Today, we call this door-to-door politicking canvassing, but in Rome it went by the Latin name ambitio, which stems from the verb ambire “to go around.”

The citizens knew that these Roman politicians all wanted the same thing: To be elected to positions of power, authority, and honor. And over time, the word ambitio came to be associated not with the act of canvassing itself but with the desire that spurred the act — and not in a positive way.

And that was the meaning the word held when it found its way into English in the 14th century as ambition. Having lost all connection to the physical act of door-to-door solicitation, ambition was considered, for several generations of English speakers, an undesirable trait. It wasn’t a desire for self-improvement but for self-aggrandizement, indicating opportunism and arrogance. Being called ambitious was an insult.

Only over time did the word shift to a more neutral connotation and then, in fairly modern times, to a positive one.

Of course, without a strong moral compass, personal ambition can still present as opportunism and arrogance, but those qualities are no longer inherent in the word. We cheer on ambitious athletes, artists, and entrepreneurs all the time without once considering that ambition could be a negative quality, or indeed without even recognizing ambition’s origins in politics.

Featured image: Romolo Tavani / Shutterstock

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