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How aggression got such a bad name

A word that hangs over the history of Asia is a reminder that words don't always mean what their roots suggest they should.

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I was over in one of the halls of academe the other day to hear some scholars' ideas about what was likely to be going on in Asia 10 years from now. They were hearteningly upbeat, in the main. The new president of Taiwan, Ma Ying-jeou, was identified as someone to watch. That he'd gone to school with some of them didn't hurt their estimation of him either.

One of the interesting ideas, something of an aside from one of the speakers, was that the nations of East Asia are in many ways at about the same point Europe was in the years right after World War II.

They are just beginning, in other words, to develop the kind of cooperative institutions, such as the European Union, that for well over half a century now have kept the peace and led to levels of prosperity undreamed of by earlier generations.

And yet the word "aggression" keeps cropping up in discussions about Asia – memories of Japanese aggression during World War II (still insufficiently acknowledged and repented of, in the views of the scholars I heard), as well as fears of potential future aggression from China, as that country expands militarily and economically in the phenomenon known as "China rising."

These musings on my part led to other musings about the word itself, , and how it needn't have such a negative meaning. It's related to and a host of other words with the same Latin root, , meaning "to step."

, the rarely used verb, which means to start a quarrel or to be the first to attack, is made up of the particle, meaning "to," plus – "to step to" something. is simply (forward) plus . There's for backward motion, for motion apart or off to the side, and for ins and outs. The story goes that showman P.T. Barnum cleared crowds from his popular American Museum in New York City with a sign or signs pointing them "This Way to the Egress."

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