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The Pathos of Everyday Life 5 (persona ‘mask’)

When one observes people speaking, especially when not participating in the conversation, what comes through is not so much the particulars of speech but the paralinguistic behavior, viz. shrugs, smiles, hand gestures, etc. that accompany speech and which are culturally coded. These body movements define the personality of speakers much more vividly than do the words they utter. It is, indeed, these gestural accompaniments that more than anything contribute to the image that is created in the mind of one’s interlocutors, which is what is meant by the word persona, the Latin forebear of the English word in common use today.

It is noteworthy that in Classical Latin the word persōna meant ‘mask, character, role’, a meaning preserved in the phrase dramatis personae ‘cast of characters’ for stage use. This implies that in speaking we always put on a mask, as it were, play a role, represent a character, and that the “real” self is to some extent always concealed from public view. Perhaps this trait of homo loquens—that of donning a mask while speaking––is an evolutionarily developed one involved in the process of getting along with others, including placating them when necessary. A poker face is not something altogether natural and hence not easily maintained. The expressivity of our face and bodies (especially the hands) goes along with the process of communicating meaning verbally and plays a significant role in the creation and maintenance of meaning.

The etymology of person is a useful backdrop to understanding this aspect of human semiosis. Here is it from the Oxford English Dictionary Online:

            Etymology:  < Anglo-Norman parsone, parsoune, person, persoun, Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French persone, personne (French personne ) presence, appearance (c1135), important person (c1140 in Anglo-Norman), the body (c1170), individual human being (1174 in Anglo-Norman), person of the Trinity (1174 in Anglo-Norman), grammatical person (first half of the 14th cent. in Anglo-Norman), juridical person (1481 in Anglo-Norman) and its etymon classical Latin persōna mask used by a player, character in a play, dramatic role, the part played by a person in life, character, role, position, individual personality, juridical person, important person, personage, human being in general, grammatical person, in post-classical Latin also person of the Trinity (early 3rd cent. in Tertullian), appearance, stature (9th cent.), of unknown origin; perhaps a loanword (compare Etruscan ϕersu , apparently denoting a mask). Compare Old Occitan, Occitan persona (mid 12th cent.), Catalan persona (1117), Spanish persona (first half of the 13th cent.), Portuguese pessoa (1267), Italian persona (a1200). Compare parson n. (originally the same word, but now differentiated in form).

Several of the uses of classical Latin (and post-classical Latin) persōna are after corresponding uses of Hellenistic Greek πρόσωπον (see prosopon n.), e.g. in grammar and theology.

In to respect no person the word originally rendered post-classical Latin personam of the Vulgate (which however has in some places faciem ), the corresponding Greek being πρόσωπον face, countenance, person, often in the compound προσωπολήπτειν to accept the face of, rendering Hebrew nāśā’ pānīm to lift up the face (towards someone), to show favour (originally referring to God’s countenance being raised towards a person upon whom he bestows favour; compare Exodus 6:26, Deuteronomy 10:17).

With singular person compare Anglo-Norman persone singuler (a1325 or earlier). With in one’s (own) person compare Anglo-Norman en sa persone (second half of the 12th cent. or earlier), classical Latin in suā personā . With in (one’s) proper person (see compare Anglo-Norman and Old French, Middle French en (sa) propre persone (c1250), post-classical Latin in persona propria (6th cent.), in propria persona (a1180, 1264 in British sources). With in (the) person of compare Anglo-Norman en la persone de (second half of the 12th cent.). With in person compare Middle French en persone (1464).

The primary dictionary meaning of persona is ‘aspect of a person’s character that is displayed to or perceived by others’. Jungian psychology uses the word as a term to designate ‘the outer or assumed aspect of character; a set of attitudes adopted by an individual to fit his or her perceived social role’ and is contrasted with anima. Given the ancient meaning of the latter word, one aspect of the pathos of being human evidently resides in the necessarily mediated character of our true selves.

MICHAEL SHAPIRO

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