Little winged pickpocket?
Dear Word Detective: How do we get the word “cupidity” for greed? If anything, it ought to have meant something exactly the opposite of greed, shouldn’t it, since (I suppose) the word is derived from Cupid, the God of love? — Partha Sen Sharma.
Shoulda, woulda, coulda. It’s the story of English. It could have been such a nice, orderly language, if only it hadn’t listened to all those ruffians. If only it had sat up straight and not slouched. If only it had played by the rules. And now just look at it. Last week, the Associated Press announced that it would henceforth be accepting the use of “hopefully” as a sentence modifier (e.g., “Hopefully, Bob will get a job”), as opposed to only as an adverb meaning “in a hopeful manner” (“Bob arrived at the interview hopefully”). Yes, I know everyone has used it the “new” way for a few hundred years, but some of us have standards. Not me, but some of us do.
Meanwhile, back at the God of Love, yeah, that’s weird, although if you try to buy a piece of cardboard bearing the little chap’s picture in the vicinity of February 14, it’ll cost you, like, four bucks, which would seem to indicate an organic connection twixt Cupid and greed. Cupid was indeed the Roman god of love, the son of Venus and Mercury. Like many Roman gods, Cupid was actually a recycled Greek god, in this case Eros, the Greek god of love and desire. While Eros was (and is) usually portrayed in art and sculpture as a hunky young man, Cupid is usually depicted as a chubby winged infant brandishing a tiny bow and arrows, with which he shoots people, making them fall in love.
The word “Cupid” first appeared in English in the 14th century, drawn from the Latin “cupido,” love or desire, which was rooted in the Latin verb “cupere,” to desire. “Cupidity” arrived in English about a century later, adapted from the French “cupidite,” meaning “passionate desire.” And now things get a little strange. In Latin and French, the family tree of “cupidity” was focused on love and erotic desire. But the earliest written uses of “cupidity” found so far in English employ the word to mean “strong desire for wealth or possessions; greed.” The more general senses of “inordinate desire, ardent longing” made an appearance a bit later, but are now considered archaic. So the only sense of “cupidity” now in accepted use is “avarice; greed; a burning desire for wealth and shiny things,” which is a bit depressing.
How and why the “burning desire for money” meaning of “cupidity” crowded out the “ardent amorous desire” senses is a mystery. Perhaps the fact that “cupidity” is more than simple greed or avarice, something amounting to a psychological fixation, made the “gimme the money” sense especially useful in English.
On a brighter note, in the early 20th century, Cupid made another appearance in popular culture in a form accessible to the humblest citizen. Created as a character by illustrator Rose O’Neill in 1909, the “Kewpie doll,” a chubby baby doll with a twee topknot and a dementedly cheerful expression, was an instant popular sensation. The name “Kewpie” was, of course, a reference to Cupid. Kewpie dolls remained popular well into the 20th century and were frequently awarded as prizes in midway games at carnivals and county fairs.