Monday, November 29, 2010

The Etymology of Compersion

Yes, I took a break from blogging, but I'm back.  Today a college student working on a paper on polyamory wrote and asked me if I know what the etymology of the word Compersion is.  I knew its meaning, of course, and where it originated, but try as I might, I couldn't find anything more than that.  I even developed a workshop with handout on the subject which includes an article on the subject published by MyTango online, yet this particular question hadn't come up. 

We know that the word originated at the Kerista commune in Berkley, CA, which practiced polyfidelity and disbanded in the early 1990s. Franklin Veaux, a/k/a Tacit, gives the following definition in his Polyamory Glossary:

"COMPERSION: A feeling of joy when a partner invests in and takes pleasure from another romantic or sexual relationship. Commentary: Compersion can be thought of as the opposite of 'jealousy;' it is a positive emotional reaction to a lover's other relationship. The term was coined by the Kerista Commune."

About Kerista, he comments:  "The Kerista Commune was an early advocate of polyamory, coining terms now common in the polyamorous community such as compersion and polyfidelity. The group eventually failed for a number of reasons, among them personality conflicts within the group, problems with financial management, an emphasis on fixed and inflexible sleeping schedules, and hostile attitudes toward bisexuality and homosexuality on the part of some members."

So we know what and where, but not the how of it.  Not being a language expert myself, the best I could come up with to answer this question is this.  I suspect that the "comp" part refers to compassion. "Per," according to the online etymology dictionary, means "through, across, beyond," and the suffix "sion" means "the condition or state of being" according to  

So that gives us compersion - compassion beyond, across or through what is normally a block to positive emotion about such circumstances as a condition or state of being.  In this case the compassion is felt for our love and their love, i.e. the ability to feel a partner's joy across or through our relationship with that partner and be happy for it.  Wordsmiths are welcome to refine or correct as desired. 


Anonymous said...

I have heard the rumour that the word was the invention of a Ouija board.

Anita Wagner said...

Yes, someone else - a respected poly community leader - mentioned the same thing to me yesterday. He got it from someone who says they were there and witnessed it.

Anonymous said...

I find I prefer the word "mudita" which is a Sanskrit word referring to taking joy in the joy of others. It's a cornerstone of some Buddhist teachings.

Tom Winegar said...

poly etymology buffs:

Kerista's Even Eve recalls that 'compersion' did indeed come off the alphabet board during commune days (and that she didn't remember pushing.)

She also remembered a reference to 'comperage' in an anthropology book she found afterward.

I searched for the 'comperage' source and found a Claude Levi-Strauss article in American Anthropologist, scanned by google. The online book is documented here -

kerista '84-91

Anita Wagner said...

Thanks so much, Tom, for the eye witness account, *very* helpful. I am often asked questions about compersion, as a practice and a concept, and this fills in the blanks quite well.


More about your Toy Diva said...

Interesting. I have never heard of that word before, but I do not know alot about polyamory. However, I have been known to say that I was born "without a jealous bone" - I rarely feel jealousy. (A rare occasion when I do.) It's nice to know there is a word to describe that. Sounds like I need to do some more research. Thank you for posting you blog on my forum.

Alan said...

My guess is that one of the Keristans with their hand on the Ouija board was trying to spell "compassion," and someone else was trying to spell "person."


Alan M.