What is an Achievement Anyway?

by JoHarrington

You're looking at one. The culmination of a challenge; the final piece fitted in a long, hard struggle. But that latter is incidental to achievement's strictest definition.

Achievement is such a subjective entity. Just when you think you know what it means, someone will be along to tell you what doesn't count.

Usually that person will be yourself - none of us being very good at accepting our achievements alongside our failures and flaws - and that will be the crowning achievement of a society built upon censure.

It's taken us centuries to make such accomplishments harder than they ever needed to be. Each of us so scared of being seen to succeed, or allowing ourselves to acknowledge the same, that we quantify our achievements to ever higher standards.

Maybe it's time to stop that. Now that would truly be an achievement.

Today I Achieved the Wizzley 50 Article Challenge

Welcome to my achievement. I can't tell you how pleased I am to be able to share this moment with you.

On July 16th 2014, I undertook a task. 

My remit was to write fifty Wizzley articles - in the order listed in advance; each topic prompted, categorized and defined before I typed a single word towards them.

Five months later, on November 24th 2014, I completed that task.

You're reading my achievement.

This is the final article in that fifty article challenge for Wizzley. When I add my last full stop and publish these words, my task is done. My achievement fulfilled to the letter.

Yet already my mind wants to quantify that moment of finishing.

I want to scream it from the rafters, telling everyone that I've finally reached my goal. That all those months of reading the next category and planning an article to match are over.

Making a big deal out of it, in order to underscore and emphasize the fact of achievement, thus imbuing my task's completion with value.

I want everyone to know that it was hard work and I struggled, therefore it means something for me to have finished here now.

I wasn't the target audience. It's all felt a little restrictive. There have been times when only sheer stubborn will has kept me focused and on track. It's been hard work - not in the execution, but the psychology. I've mentally rebelled against certain topics coming at specific times. I've fretted about things I wanted to write, but couldn't see an opening anywhere on the list any time soon.

I've been bored. I've been exhilarated. I've been pushed in directions that I didn't want to go. I've been writing outside my comfort zone. I've been writing well within it.

Part of me wishes I'd never begun. The achievement is tempered by the notion that I shouldn't even be here. How can you claim joy in finishing an endeavor that you've spent several weeks wishing you'd never started.  

Or is that the point?  Is that what makes the achievement meaningful?  To want to walk away, yet to see it through anyway.

To extend great effort - scaling mountains (real or metaphorical) as the only way to achieve the summit; laboring to row our little boats into ever wider waters, as the sole route into achieving our view of the golden sunset.

That's the general message repeated endlessly on achievement motivational posters (see above and below).  The harsh journey there defines an achievement, doesn't it?

No. Just the completion. That's enough to achieve anything.

The rest is merely mind and emotion reacting to the notion that all achievement must be something more than any of us may attain. Because the alternative is actually achieving things. Not only that, but totting up several achievements before breakfast.

Things I Also Achieved on November 24th 2014

It's been a busy day so far. Here are my early morning achievements.
  • Sleep achievement - claimed when I woke up.
  • Lying down achievement - claimed when I climbed out of bed.
  • Tea making achievement - claimed when I carried a mug of tea successfully away from the kettle's vicinity.
  • Computer booting achievement - claimed after pressing a button, which caused my PC to run through its boot up cycle.
  • Logging on achievement - I'm here on Wizzley! *waves*
  • Tea drinking achievement - claimed after the aforementioned mug of tea was empty.
  • Waking up achievement - all of the above were pretty much on automatic pilot. It was around the second cuppa that I gained true sentience.

All before breakfast and plenty more too.  Mostly because I don't really do breakfast, so I can fit several hours' worth of achievements in there.

Perhaps a dictionary definition of achievement may be in order right around now.

Then again, much more insight and information may generally be gained by starting at the beginning - exploring the origin of words in common usage now, to see where they came from and what they're supposed to mean.

Regarding achievement, the etymology is downright amusing.  Misheard, misunderstood and misused for centuries, bless us all.

The Etymology of Achievement

To head - result or product of an action... huh? A little linguistic journey is patently required before we achieve an understanding of that one (beyond the gutter).

Look at us speaking Medieval French with our talk of 'achievement'!

First recorded in the 12th century is the word 'achever', which simply means 'finish' or 'complete'.

By the 14th century, it had acquired an 'i' to read 'achiever', whereupon it was dumped into the English language by the Anglo-Normans on the verge of learning English.

Even then, it referred to the act of completing something.

In its purest form, achievement still does.

No quantifying aspects necessary. It doesn't even have to be particularly hard, as long as it's something brought to a head.

A task, which reached its natural conclusion and stopped. The end.

This article constitutes my challenge achievement, because it's the last one on the list. All else I wrote about it above is merely whining. That's me wanting you all to consider my challenge completion to be worth the lauding.

Hence my bigging up the notion of 'achievement' somewhat beyond its defining properties.

There's none of this rigamarole concerning the words 'stopped', 'ended' nor 'fulfilled', yet they may all work as a synonym for 'achieve', given the correct context.  Digging yet deeper into the etymology may further illuminate such circumstances for the correct usage of achievement.

It's all the Roman Empire's fault.

Just in general terms, we can blame them for most things up to and including the State of the World right now. But also specifically here, insofar as Roman soldiers once stationed in Gaul started using slang words within earshot of the Gallic - and erstwhile Merovingian - masses.

Amongst this lexicon of Vulgar Latin was a single word 'caput', which forms the basis of our modern word 'achieve'.

World domination (nearly) whilst speaking Latin - achieved; Roman conquest of Gaul - achieved. Final achievement - Latin inserted into English and Romance languages.

I know 'caput', albeit spelled 'kaput'. I've heard it as an uncommon word in English, and I've had occasion to use it too.

It tends to appear in sentences like, 'the engine in my car is kaput' or 'my computer's kaput!' It has a pleasantly final sound, to soften the blow of something quite expensive potentially being broken. I think I've always heard it describing electrical or mechanical items during the 'definitely dead' stage, but before an expert has confirmed that its 'kaput' status is irrevocably terminal.

There's hope in 'kaput'. Like a child trying out a gentler word in order to grasp an unwelcome concept. Nothing so harsh as 'defunct', 'scrapped' nor even 'broken' here. It's kaaaaa-puutt! Delivered like karate chop on the tongue. Almost funny, making the waiting bearable in dissociated humor, until the news arrives along with the bill.

Then nothing is 'kaput'. It's finished, over and done; destroyed with all due dread accompanying how one might afford its replacement. It's lost to us, dead and leaving us bereft with our world in ruins.

The French gave us that word too. They didn't have a clue what they were talking about. They passed it on with all dodgy definitions intact and it's been misused in the English language ever since.

Though, in fairness, they sent it via the Germans, who 'taught' it to the English during World War One. Many early German victories were accompanied by triumphant cries of 'kaputt!' emanating from the Teutonic ranks.

Hence their English speaking targets fully grasped the general concept of utter loss and destruction - aptly demonstrated by the association of 'kaputt' with artillery bombardment and allied corpses - but morale boosting psychology required twisting the word into something darkly humorous in order to extract the sting.

French, German and English alike have used 'kaputt' (or 'kaput') to mean 'an end', whichever nuance was applied. Which is a pity, as it means nothing of the sort.

Moral of the story: never, ever nick words off the French ESPECIALLY those delivered by German people with bombs. The definitions will be out.

Back to those Latin speaking soldiers in Gaul.

What the old French were originally hearing - picked up when the Roman Occupation of Gaul was nearing its end - were phrases like 'to come to a head'. Yes, it meant that something was over - in this case said Occupation - but the pertinent word was 'head', pronounced 'caput'.

Ad caput - a head; ad caput venire - a head to come.

The English language is full of other words arising from 'caput' and still retaining that 'head' element. A cape comes from the Latin 'cappa' meaning 'hooded cloak'- except the French missed that one too, using 'cape' to denote a Spanish style cloak sans hood, before saddling the increasingly gullible English with the same erroneous addition to our lexicon too.

We did better with the other use of 'cape', as a headland, such as the Cape of Good Hope; or 'cap' - head gear; 'capsized' - to sink by the head; capital city/letter/gain, all being primary in their genre; capital punishment originally describing only decapitation (spot the 'cap' in the middle there too).

In architecture, there's the capital - head of a pillar; in economics, there's another capital - the head portion of a money loan, which is attached to usury (now called interest) as the payment tail.

The political sense of 'capitalism' was derived from that definition.

Something deemed top rate, ahead of its game, may inspire someone posh to exclaim, 'Capital!' But they'd know the Latin root from their public school days, hence it not really taking off amongst state school kids.

Back to the plot, which was the French misunderstanding Roman soldier slang, then trying to sound clever by inserting Imperial words into their vocabulary. Followed by Anglo-Normans continuing the fine tradition of Malapropism, until they'd infected the English language too.

Ad caput venire - as uttered by Roman centurions mid-gossiping about matters being brought to a head - became venir à chef by the time the French had finished with it.

Pronouncing 'caput' as 'chef' fared better in retaining its original meaning of 'head'. It gave us 'chief' for a start, plus 'chieftain' (from the French 'chevetain'). Strangely 'captain' comes from this, yet nearly takes us full circle back into 'caput'.

They all mean 'leader', 'commander', 'ruler', or generally 'the dude in charge', up to and including our favorite head cook, the chef.

Kerchief and Handkerchief

By the 13th century, we'd also got a bit of cloth worn upon the heads of ladies. This fashionable article was called a kerchief - where 'ker' derives from a word meaning 'cover' and 'chief' equates head.

So far so etymologically rather sound, until we get to the 16th century and it all goes pear-shaped again.

That's when the handkerchief was invented, thus producing a word which strictly translates as a 'hand covering for the head'.

At least a neckerchief is in vaguely the right direction, if slightly garbled in the translation.

On the bright side, those old Roman centurions are long since kaput, hence they can't hear what they started with all due bewilderment and mirth.

Back to the French.

Having messed around with the positioning of 'venire' - from ad caput venire to venir à chef - it was eventually decided that they could do without adding it at all.

Suddenly 'à chef' was tripping off Gallic tongues whenever they wished to announce that an end has been reached. (To the confusion of Imperial ghosts, who are wondering why they're all declaring 'a head'. But that's entropy for you.)

By the 12th century, 'à chef' had become 'acheve'; two hundred years later, it was 'achieve'.

The meaning never altered. Then, as now, it remained 'an end', but only as a verb.  We had to wait until the late 15th century before another linguistic development heralded the final piece necessary to achieve our full definition.

Things came to a head when someone realized that Middle French was missing a noun.

If 'achieve' means 'complete' then what has somebody performing that act of completion done? Enter 'achievement'.

This was apparently a little clumsy, when put to daily use. Therefore one last subtle shift crept in a century later. During the 1590s, the French added a flourish to their noun's meaning. This nuance allowed 'achievement' to be defined as the thing being achieved, not the act being performed.

Game developers have been thanking them ever since.

Achievement T-Shirts for Gamers

I've certainly done my time with gaming Achievement Diaries. Strangely it's only in the gaming world where achievement generally just means completion.

The Dictionary Definitions of Achievement

We're up to three definitions of achievement in the dictionary, and dozens of unofficial ones too. Like I said, we do like to over-complicate our visions of achievement.

What does achievement mean? Well according to my dictionary, achievement is a noun which may be applied to any of three situations:

  1. A feat accomplished by great skill, struggle, hard work, heroism, courage, prolonged effort etc; a heroic or masterful deed.
  2. The act of achieving: attainment or accomplishment.
  3. Full display of armorial bearings in heraldry.

Spot the notable absence of the word 'head'. That's sooooo 5th century. 

More peculiar is the omission of anything along the lines of 'completion' or 'finishing'. The closest we get is 'accomplishment', a word which (erroneously) also has connotations of grandeur, training or effort in its modern usage; or 'attainment', which genuinely has always meant that striven towards, requiring some great endeavor, before finally being gained.

There's no simple 'end' here, but there are a lot of complicated conclusions in its place. Why is that?

Achievement in a Time of Protestant Work Ethic

To finish, heads up on one explanation as to why achievements these days are so much more difficult to achieve.

I found an answer - whether it's the only one is up to debate - while researching for my article The Song of Taliesin.

In his book The Celtic Shaman, John Matthews argues that achievement is too often misconstrued as acquisition.

We measure our achievements in possessions, monetary assets, mortgages, nice cars and the ability to pay for fancy holidays.

None of these actually fit the true definition at all, though if we saved up for any of them, then the moment we stopped saving was an achievement. Just not the acquisition part.

For Matthews, all meaning became conflated during those centuries where the Protestant Work Ethic over-rode everything.

Value came through hard work, which in turn produced valuable things. Displays of material wealth made us look spiritually devout.

Nothing counted, unless labor, endurance or some other qualitative feat conferred meaning. Only then had we achieved something worth crowing over.  Those entrenched in the Protestant Work Ethic would disdain as undeserved any gains handed over on a plate. Nor is there anything noteworthy in things easily completed by all.

But who undertakes anything of difficulty or effort without some kind of benefit to themselves?

Recognition in achievement is its own reward.  Yet this runs foul of another aspect of Protestantism, whereby modesty is lauded above boastfulness.  It makes receiving compliments very problematic concerning our own selves.

Yet it's permissible to receive praise for any riches or possessions made available through the hard work which led to our achievement. Acquisition became the socially accepted way for achievements to not only be acknowledged as praiseworthy, but for that praise to be comfortably received.

Today's Western society was built upon the tenets of Protestantism. Even those who proclaim themselves adherents of another religion, or else Atheists or otherwise secular, have been influenced by the culture in which they were raised. The values of the Protestant Work Ethic are still prevalent, particularly in regard to how we evaluate success and achievement.

If there is no apparent monetary gain, then we feel an even bigger compulsion to highlight problematic elements in whatever task was just completed. It's the only way we may lay claim to that unduly laden word 'achievement'.

Would you agree with John Matthews there?

It would explain why the word gained such an expanded definition over time, particularly after passing from Catholic French usage into Protestant English. The implication being that to elaborate further is merely piling more subjective meaning onto a word already over-burdened with such. We long since reached completion, within our remit answering - what is an achievement anyway?

It's time things were brought to a head.

I understand achievement.  My Wizzley Fifty Article Challenge is now finished.

Some Wizzley 50 Article Challenge Achievements

I completed them as part of the Challenge too.
Republican US District Judge Cormac J. Carney has sounded the death knoll for judicial killing in the Golden State after ruling it a 'cruel and unusual punishment'.
They are unconscious, not breathing and without a pulse. Would you know how to perform CPR? A qualified First Aider demonstrates.
It's the 20th anniversary of 'The Holy Bible'. Song meanings should be dated in their grim 'reality as it is' expose of our world. Yet most seem even more relevant now.
Historians argue endlessly about the location of Camlan, where legend relates that Arthur and Modred were killed. The locals just know. You may visit Camlan battle site.
Updated: 01/13/2015, JoHarrington
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blackspanielgallery on 03/15/2016

All who get to this point in an article, the place for comments, have had an achievement, and finishing a comment is yet another. Small, yet significant.

KajaMel on 07/21/2015

Hi Jo. I'm new and found this article while searching through the great authors. Very intriguing. Congratulations on your success. :)

AlexandriaIngham on 07/17/2015

I'm only just seeing this, but congratulations on your achievement Jo. I started it but have still yet to finish. I took a break from Wizzley writing and maybe one day I will get back to it. Right now, I'm focusing on other projects and another job.

JoHarrington on 01/13/2015

Aww! I'm glad to hear it. This has been rather successful as well as a completion. My Wizzley articles have really taken off.

WriterArtist on 01/12/2015

Achievement makes a lot of sense coming from you who is a source of inspiration to me. I loved the intro photo as well - the rainbow of hope and culmination of success.

JoHarrington on 01/08/2015

Frank - Thank you very much. :) And yes, that link is key, I think.

JoHarrington on 01/08/2015

Telesto - Doing the job that's in front of you is the perfect way to get on. All those little things add up.

frankbeswick on 12/30/2014

You have shown the link between achievement and commitment, Congratulations Jo.

Telesto on 12/30/2014

Well, I'm sometimes very tardy with things because of other commitments, but we just do our best and keep on. :-)

JoHarrington on 12/27/2014

Thank you very much! Part of the reason I've seemed to disappear since this is getting through the backlog. I'll be glad of new year and a clean slate.

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