26 February 2020

Paolo Quattrone's letter in response to Moira O'Neill's opinion piece was recently published in the Financial Times.
Roman bust in a garden

Moira O'Neill states that "Latin and Greek have no place in the investment world" (FT, 30 Jan).

In the world of finance, always projected to the future, this is an appealing statement. However, as the Italian film director and actor Nanni Moretti said: "words are important" as "those who speak badly, think badly and live badly".

The most common words used in the world of finance and economics have important Latin and Greek origins. Take the word 'rationality', for example. We associate it with intellectual abilities, mainstream economics, and the idea of making the most of your money. But its etymology reveals a different story: ratio in Latin means 'calculation', 'proportion', and, surprisingly, 'account'. 'Ratio-nality signals the need for balanced decisions and how we are accountable for them when they are not.

Take 'equity' from aequitas, that is, fairness. How much of that do we have today in the financial world? Take 'speculation' from speculum, i.e. 'mirror' in Latin. How much reflection goes into investment decisions in high-frequency trading and passive asset management? 'Bureau-cracy' is also an interesting one as its etymology points to the fact that an excess of managerialisation is indeed 'crazy'.

Finally, take the most popular word these days: data. It comes from datum which means both 'given' and 'attributed': the meaning is in the tension between the two. "Data lies and this is why we do not find them in heaven", the late Clayton Christensen reminded us, because "facts" are indeed "made" (from factum). Possibly the world of finance, where ethics is always invoked and rarely practiced, is the only space where less Latin and Greek will not lead to more ethics and justice.

Paolo Quattrone

Paolo Quattrone is Chair in Accounting Governance & Social Innovation at the University of Edinburgh Business School.

Read 'Latin and Greek have no place in the investment world' on the Financial Times' website.