Rather ironically, though today’s word deals specifically with things being as they should be, it defies itself through its numerous definitions, which are all variations of the same concept applied differently. Beyond that highly philosophical statement, today’s word is something that we’ve grown to depend upon, though we only really notice it when we’re lacking it. So, today, let’s give some love to a word that, by standing firm, makes our days go smoothly, but often goes overlooked – let’s have a look at consistency.
Coming from the Medieval Latin consistentia, meaning ‘standing together’, our term, consistency, originated as a compound of the prefix com with the infinitive sistere (from the verb sto/stare), meaning literally ’to stand with’.
The first type of “standing together” that would come to define this word would be through the usage of agricultural writer and inventor Hugh Plat, who, in the section of his work from 1594, The Jewell House of Art and Nature, entitled “Chemical Conclusions Concerning the Art of Distillation”, uses the term as the condition in which a type of matter coheres or “stands together” in a retainable form (think of jello or a jelly setting up), writing: “Boie the same..unto a stiffness, or consistency (as they term it).”
More than 60 years after this first usage, the term would be given its more broad and obvious usage – that of being consistent or in harmony with something – in 1659 by MP for Westmorland, Thomas Burton, who noted in his Diary: “Whether you are in a good consistency and right understanding between you and the Chief Magistrate, or not.”
Slightly skewing the initial definition of the term to mean a specific degree of density or viscosity (for example), English churchman and historian Thomas Fuller (writing about 1661) recorded: “Before the Alum could be brought to its true consistency.” in his posthumously published The History of the Worthies of England.
As could’ve been expected in the following 15 or so years, the previous definitions of something being static, harmonious, and specific, led to the idea of the word being defined as something that is settled or unchanging (as a condition), which can be seen in the statement: “Aristotle..supposeth it [the world] Eternal, and an eternal consistency in the state it now stands.”, found in judge and jurist Matthew Hale’s The Primitive Origination of Mankind (1677).
Beginning in 1690, however, our word came to be used more figuratively and applied more generally, starting with A Discourse about Trade, written by mercantilist and East India Company governor Sir Josiah Child, who, in the sense of being a condition or quality, observed that: “ [It] brought their People to that consistency of Wealth, that..there are more Lenders now than Borrowers.”
Approximately 2 decades later, discussing the Reformation in England, historian, clergyman, and biographer John Strype wielded the term as a kind of cohesion or form of universal understanding, remarking: “By which time it arrived to a good consistency and establishment.” (Annals of the Reformation).
Relative to a personal characteristic, such as always having a pleasant disposition or always displaying a strong work ethic, our word was first applied in 1715 by noted essayist Joseph Addison in his political newspaper, The Freeholder, penning that: “That Consistency of Behaviour, whereby He inflexibly pursues those Measures which appear the most Just and Equitable.” in a fabulously Regency era article titled, “An Answer to a Pamphlet Entitled, an Argument to Prove the Affections of the People of England to Be the Best Security of the Government. by the Author of the Free-Holder”.
Finally, in perhaps the most generalized usage – and the one with which we’re likely most familiar – today’s word simply implies the overall quality of being consistent with oneself, as in all parts working or being in agreement. Initially given this meaning by philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham in Defence of Usury (1787), which was a compiled series of letters to esteemed Scottish economist Adam Smith, comments that: “If that consistency were to be found in the common law,..compound interest never could have been denied.”