You can’t always get what you want

But then again, sometimes you can.

Want is a funny word, one of those words which has undergone a subtle yet devastating change in meaning in recent times. It is, perhaps, the word which most exemplifies the modern condition, and when I mean modern, I pretty much mean the psychological condition which came about as a result of the reformation.

The reformation, loosely speaking, was predicated on two particular issues, the first being the call of sola scriptura, or back to the bible (that’s a very loose translation), and the second being the insistence that the individual have a personal relationship with god. That is, the bible was re-assessed, re-translated, and presented in the vernacular, so that no interpretation by religious authorities was necessary, and the individual might decide for his or herself how god was to be worshipped (this is a self-serving and only partially accurate analysis of this whole movement, but it will do nicely). Naturally, things weren’t that simple, not least because you can’t have people making their own minds up, because then society becomes a bit of a nightmare. Just ask Calvin. Jean, not Klein …

This general movement towards an individual making their own decisions, rather than behaving as directed, leads directly to the delightful americanese of self-improvement gurus who suggest that you can be anything you want to to. Bless. Plainly nonsense, and the kind of nonsense which can result in abject humiliation: witness those deluded individuals on ‘talent’ shows. Someone has told them they can sing, and what’s worse, they’ve believed them.

Now, the proper (by which I mean the original, whatever that is) meaning of ‘want’ is lack. This is described as ‘chiefly archaic’ by my dictionary, but is current enough to have featured in Pink Floyd’s Us and Them – ‘For want of the price, of tea and a slice, the old man died’ – and still feature in the name of the charity War on Want.

Incidentally, this always confused me when my father said ‘I want doesn’t get’ (one of his favourite sayings), as I surmised that this was a) bleeding obvious, because getting obviates wanting and b) wrong, because ‘I want hasn’t got’ is more accurate.


The modern meaning is something closer to desire.

The two are not synonymous, however, and often what one lacks is not what one desires.

‘IT is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune must be in want of a wife.’

Not the perfect example because of the qualifier ‘in’, but you get my drift.


The obsession with one’s own condition, with desires over needs, is what fuels the modern world. It is, in effect, emotional capitalism. We are continually encouraged to seek more, look beyond, grab more, take whatever we want. And so we do.

This change in meaning accords with a change in thought processes – and if thought is itself predicated upon, even effected by, language and our usage thereof, then this is the perfect example – where once we would simply have known that which we lack, and either sought to remedy the situation, or simply accept the impossibility of it being made available to us, we now insist on choice.

Except that our society is so hide-bound by rules, by prescription, enveloped in such a colour-by-numbers world, that the faculty of decision-making is denied us. Where once we might have relied on our discretion, now the better part of valour is something else entirely.

Now, we want to eat our cake and have it – oh, and preferably sell it on, too.

When presented with a zero-sum game, we want not only to sit on the fence, but to balance the money, the fame and the girl equally on both knees while we do so.


It seems perfectly typical that where a word used to indicate lack, it now pinpoints greed. Who’d have thought that Mick Jagger would have been so cunning?