The L-Word

I’ve been thinking about the origin of words recently.

It started with finding out that the word ‘priority’ was—for at least 600 years—singular. As in, one. One priority. The very first thing. It wasn’t until the 1900s that we start seeing people talk about having more than one priority. More than one very first thing? Huh. Is that even possible? The idea has got me seriously reevaluating my priorities, plural.  (I read this—and several other thought-provoking tidbits—in a book called Essentialism, by Greg McKown. It’s well worth reading if you ever feel overwhelmed by today’s frenetic pace and too many priorities, plural.)

Then, courtesy of a fellow word nerd in a copywriting network group I belong to, I learned about Merriam Webster’s “Time Traveler” feature online. You can type in any year and find out what new words appeared on the scene that year. So of course I immediately searched the words from the year I was born. I was surprised to discover that French manicures, autism spectrum disorder, and snowboards are the same age as I am. (So young!) Some of the words that made their official debut the same year as baby me already seem obsolete: boom box, phone card, camcorder. (Now I feel old.) And then there were some words I’ve never heard in my entire life (and honestly, would prefer not to). Scuzzball? Ghetto blaster?

Our language is changing all the time. Several thousand words are added to English dictionaries every year. And even old words change their meaning over time. ‘Awful’ things used to be things that were worthy of awe. Now we use the word ‘awful’ to describe things that make us cringe. Like the word ‘scuzzball.’

So I decided to take a closer look at the word ‘legacy.’ Those of us who work in philanthropy and planned giving—or legacy giving—use this word all the time, don’t we? But when’s the last time you really stopped to think about what ‘legacy’ really means? And what does it mean to the people you’re saying it to? I confess I had never put much thought into it.

Here’s what I learned:

The word ‘legacy’ comes from the Latin word legatus, which means an ambassador or delegated person. Nowadays dictionaries define ‘legacy’ as a gift through a person’s will. (Which means when we talk about a ‘legacy gift,’ technically we’re being redundant: a gift gift.)

‘Legacy’ was used exclusively as a noun for nearly 500 years, but now we also use it as an adjective. We’ve got legacy software and legacy data. There’s a Legacy golf course and a Legacy retirement community not far from where I live. Legacy Recordings brings us Bing Crosby and Cyndi Lauper, digitally remastered. Legacy Games creates games for Walmart. And Legacy Linens produces “unique and beautiful bedding, curtain and accessory collections.”

As an adjective, it seems, ‘legacy’ gets watered down. I don’t care how well made your bed linens are, they’re not going to get passed down to my heirs!

I’m not ready to say we should ditch the word ‘legacy.’ But maybe. Or at least we should be aware that talking about “leaving a legacy gift” likely does not carry as much significance as we think—especially if the person we’re talking to happens to drive a Subaru Legacy or tee up at the Legacy Golf Club.

This article originally appeared as my Editor’s Note in GIVING TOMORROW magazine.