Wood on Words: Get to know the real Preamble to the Constitution

Barry Wood

Contrary to a pronouncement by Rush Limbaugh at the recent Conservative Political Action Conference in Washington, D.C., the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” does not appear in the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution. It’s in the Declaration of Independence.

Yes, we all make mistakes. I’ve made some doozies.

But if you’re going to wrap yourself and your cause in a famous document, shouldn’t you at least read it first?

Although those words aren’t in the Preamble, other memorable ones are, including those eight nouns I’ve been examining. Two of them I addressed in columns that ran before this current series: “liberty” and “justice.”

The former is a synonym for “freedom” — another word Limbaugh mistakenly placed in the Preamble. At least it is in the Constitution — specifically the First Amendment, which guarantees his right to say such things, whether they’re true or not.

“Liberty” comes from the Latin word for “free” — “liber,” also the origin for “liberal.”

“Justice” comes from the Latin “jus,” meaning “right, law.” It’s also where “judge” and “jury” come from — but not “executioner.”

That leaves “welfare,” “blessings” and “posterity.”

“Welfare” has certainly acquired some excess baggage through the years, especially in this country. Such terms as “welfare state,” “welfare mom” and “on welfare” are sure to stir emotions.

Its ancestor is the Middle English “wel faren,” which is simply “to fare well.” And its first definition is still “the state of being or doing well; condition of health, happiness and comfort; well-being; prosperity.”

But then came “the organized efforts of government agencies that grant aid to the poor, the unemployed, etc.” And that’s when the trouble began.

The basic idea behind that kind of welfare is to try to make the American dream attainable for people who might not be able to do it on their own.

And most people have this humanitarian spirit to some degree. The trick is translating it into workable programs. On how to do that there is no consensus.

As for the verb “bless,” it seems to be descended from an Old English word for “blood” and an association with a rite of consecration involving the sprinkling of blood on an altar.

Removed from specific religious references, a “blessing” is “good wishes or approval” or “anything that gives happiness or prevents misfortune; special benefit or favor.”

The Founding Fathers hoped to “secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity.”

And “posterity” is “all succeeding generations.”

So the standard was set at the very beginning. Americans strive for something better now and for their descendants.

By the way, “preamble,” or “introduction,” is from the Latin verb “praeambulare,” meaning “to precede.” And yes, “ambulare” is where we get “amble” — “to walk in a leisurely manner.”

That’s an appropriate topic for a footnote.

Contact Barry Wood atbwood@rrstar.com or read his blog at blogs.e-rockford.com/woodonwords/.