Ethos

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The word ethos – pronounced EE-thoss, IPA: /'iː θɒs/ – means ‘the distinctive spirit and attitudes of a group, community, era, or culture’, ‘the ways in which members of the group characteristically think and act’. Thus we may speak of ‘the Methodist ethos’ (i.e., the ways in which members of the Methodist Church characteristically think and act); ‘the public school ethos’ (i.e., the attitudes and behaviour characteristic of those who have been educated at a public school); ‘a fin-de-siècle ethos’ (i.e., the decadent attitudes and life-style common among certain groups in the final years of the nineteenth century).

Ethos or ethic? In some contexts it may seem to matter little whether we use ethos or ethic: ‘the Methodist ethos’ and ‘the Methodist ethic’, e.g., may seem to be equivalent expressions. However, since ethic means ‘the set of moral values and principles which guide and influence the life of a group or, less commonly, of an individual’, even in these contexts there is a difference: ethic refers to the moral values and principles which guide the group’s life, while ethos refers to certain features of the group’s life so guided. Further, since not all life-styles are guided and influenced by a set of moral values and principles, there are contexts in which it is possible to use ethos but not ethic: it would be strange to speak of, e.g., ‘a fin-de-siècle ethic’ or ‘a devil-may-care ethic’ rather than ‘a fin-de-siècle ethos’ or ‘a devil-may-care ethos’.

Etymological note: The word ethos comes, through Late Latin, from the Greek ἦθος (ēthos), which means ‘custom’, ‘disposition’, ‘character’, and, in the plural, ‘traits’ ‘characteristics’.

See further Ethic - ethics.