Translatable but Debatable — ערכי: Principals, principles, and values

by Mark L. Levinson

Miriam Deutscher has written in to Translatable but Debatable with the word ערכי  (ehrki).   “I sometimes use ethical or moral, but right now I’m stuck on an important trait for school principals being ערכיות.”

The word ערכי, from ערך meaning a value, is too new for all my printed dictionaries, but says “moral, ethical, principled.”  Unfortunately, in English when you say a principal should be principled, you run into a clang effect — a distracting coincidental similarity in sound between two words.

Anyway, there’s a slight difference between principles and values, although we do want both in a school principal.  Hebrew has a separate word to describe someone who is strong on principles, עקרוני  (ekroni).  It’s also too new for a lot of dictionaries, but Ya’acov Levy’s Oxford dictionary includes it.  Blogger Omer Kabir describes how as a matter of principle he bought food that the supermarket had symbolically curtained away for Passover:

בהיותי אדם עקרוני ואף עקשן במידה לא מבוטלת, החלטתי, בשם הפרנציפ, להוסיף לקנייה גם שקית ביסלי גריל קטנה ולא כשרה לפסח – אך ורק בגלל הטרחה המיותרת שנגרמה לי בגין מאמציהם הסופר-מוגזמים למנוע גישה לחמץ.

In a 1984 New York Times language column, William Safire contemplated the difference between principles and values, noting that having “values” was more in fashion than having “principles.”  (I suppose being “virtuous” is by now completely obsolete.)  Safire seems to consider values weaker than principles:

Values can change but principles do not. David Guralnik, editor of Webster's New World Dictionary, explains: “Principles , being theological in origin, are fixed, invariable, absolute, eternal. Values , being in a sense scientific, are nontheological and therefore subject to change and alteration as the demands and needs of a society change.”

A woman's place is in the home: That was once a value, but times and that value have come a long way, baby.

I think that, on the contrary, values are fundamental and principles arise from the application of values.  The sanctity of the Sabbath is a value; the sanctity of life is a value; that saving lives overrides Sabbath is a principle.  (That “a woman’s place is in the home,” I think, is or was in the realm of principle, while a congenial home is a value.)

A person imbued by values is what?  Valueful is unfortunately not a reputable word.  Someone driven by values would normally be called “value-driven” — with no “s” because in such a construction normally don’t see the plural.  A dog bitten by fleas is flea-bitten, a cake covered by blueberries is blueberry-covered.  However, the adjective “value-driven” has been co-opted by the business world in connection with the kind of value that money buys.  Paul Kujiten, an expert in agile software development, says:

Being value-driven to me is continuously looking at the impact of what you are doing, at a much lower granularity than a huge business case for a project. It means expressing that value, and initiating the dialogue with all stakeholders based on value. Value is often called "business" value, as if there is any other kind of value.

In order to refer to another kind of value, speakers of English have broken the rule and invented the separate adjective “values-driven.”  An article titled “Fast 50: Values-driven employees changing company cultures” quotes Deloitte management as saying employees are “now becoming more interested in doing meaningful work and not necessarily focused on career ambitions. They want to do work that resonates with their values."

“Values-driven leadership” and the “values-driven organization” are also buzzed about, with more than 20 thousand and 30 thousand Google hits respectively.

So maybe a values-driven school principal is what we’re looking for, as opposed to the more prosaic value-driven kind.  Or is there a better word in English?  Comments relating to this topic (ערכי) are welcome below.  Suggestions for other words to discuss should go to instead and will not be used without credit.  

Mark L. Levinson

Born 1948 a few trolley stops from Boston, Massachusetts. Bachelor's degree from Harvard College. Moved to Israel in 1970. Worked and learned Hebrew on Kibbutz Ramat Hashofet. Moved to Haifa and worked teaching English to adults. Did similar work in the army. After discharge, turned to technical writing, initially for Elbit. Then promotional writing for Scitex, and more technical (and occasionally promotional) writing for Edunetics, Daisy Systems (later named Dazix, SEE Technologies, and Summit Design), Memco, and Gilian. Also translated from Hebrew to English, everything from business articles to fiction, filmscripts, and poetry. Served as local chapter president for the Society for Technical Communication, editor of several issues of local literary journals, occasional political columnist and book reviewer for the Jerusalem Post, and husband & father.