I’ve been carrying this word, mean, around with me for weeks now. I’ll share. Yes, I know you didn’t ask. I will keep it short.
We seem to have lost one meaning of mean now that we need it most. What a shame.
We use the word “mean” in many ways. In statistics, it means “average” and is often different from the median or midpoint. As a verb, we use it for to signify or to have in mind or to intend. As an adjective—and as a noun —we use the word in at least three ways, although it seems that only one meaning is common. In today’s world, mean is hostile or rude, and I think it’s what your six year old has in mind when she complains that her eight year old brother is “being mean to me.” It can also have the meaning of poor or in inferior circumstances. There is nothing noble in being mean in this way—synonyms include base, beggarly or sordid. But when my mother or father referred to someone as “mean,” they often as not meant it in the sense of “ungenerous.” The synonyms are wonderful—close, mingy, miserly, niggard, parsimonious, penurious, rapacious, tight and tight fisted.
My dad is gone now, but for him the word described not only the tight-fistedness that might be a reasonable reaction to living through the great depression, but also—and much, much closer to the point—an “ungenerousness” of spirit—a deep seated, humorless and ugly inability to be happy—to even fake happiness—for any success that others might have. For a spirit that recoils in spite and hate at any tiny advantage, deserved or undeserved, afforded to a neighbor, a relative, or a friend.
My dad would have had little trouble then in placing the basic tenets of the Tea Party. He would have understood the motives of the self-proclaimed patriots, the men and women who think that paying a tax, they can afford, to keep our public schools running is somehow an injustice. He would have recognized them, our real and potential men and women of government, Sarah, Michelle and Scott, as mean—and he would have wondered, as a man of peace, kindness and generosity, what the hell had happened to his country.