Tuesday, December 8, 2009


Until recently, I thought that 'treasure' was a somewhat antiquated word. Buried treasure, treasure chest--still not out of our common usage, but not what we'd refer to in everyday speech. We don't say, "I think I'll go check how much treasure I have in my checking account", for instance. Though we might still say, somewhat sentimentally, 'I treasure the moments I had with her.' But this kind of sentence still puts the actual word 'treasure' at one remove.

A few days ago though, I heard the word used in earnest. As new U.S. troops are mobilized for Afghanistan, I heard a couple of very serious types on the news shows evaluating the decision in terms of its cost in 'Lives and Treasure'.

So what is treasure, exactly? We all know what it means to us, of course. It's not an obscure word. But what does it mean to these experts who use the phrase 'lives and treasure' so gravely and so authoritatively?

Well, the first thing I learned may be obvious to those who still remember some of their Attic Greek, but I was surprised to learn that 'treasure' actually stems from the Greek word 'thesaurus', which originally meant both treasure and the place to store it. Our modern day 'thesaurus' seems to mean some sort of treasury, and it's interesting how often books of collected stories or poems have referred to themselves as treasuries, as if the idea of collecting samples of the printed word led fairly quickly to the idea of a book as a sort of storehouse of texts.

However, though I expected some sort of precise legal definition of 'lives and treasure' to float to the surface during my research, in fact, it seems to be very much one of those phrases that someone used and which then got picked up by others because it sounded solemn enough. For some reason, American talking heads seem to have been very fond of using it in relation to the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. 'Blood and treasure' is an alternative form of the phrase.

I thought it would be interesting to see how far back the expression actually goes. Nothing conclusive came up, but I did like this site's imaginative and possibly even true linking back to a time just a bit further away from us than Gulf War I.


  1. The word immediately brought to mind the dishy Johny Depp in his Jack Sparrow avataar - somehow treasure to me is a childhood word associated with Enid Blyton and her books.
    "Lives and treasure" seems an ironic disjunction. I would have thought 'lives are treasure', but then, with the way goverments are squandering young lives in warfields, maybe not.

  2. Yes, the imaginative resonance from childhood does seem a far better use of the word, doesn't it? But the fact that we still have a U.S. Treasury should have clued me in that the powers that be still take the word very seriously.

    One of the odd things I turned up in looking this up was that apparently, only one pirate ever buried any treasure at all.

  3. Treasure is word to cherish, though I shudder to learn that talking heads are now using it. Won't be long before "intel" and "treasure" turn up in the same sentence. When that occurs, I'd say, we'll have a crisis situation.
    Detectives Beyond Borders
    "Because Murder Is More Fun Away From Home"

  4. Yep--we might already be there, though.

  5. Oh, great. Now you'll get me started on a diatribe against CNN.

  6. Oh, go ahead. Any puncturing of the hot air balloons they float will be all to the good. Won't make much difference here, but still.