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I’m looking for an adjective that means the person described has the power to choose their own actions, rather than being someone else’s puppet. Potent is the closest I’ve come but it’s not right.

The context is a reaction I’m writing to the conquistador Bernal Díaz del Castillo’s account of the Historia verdadera de la conquista de la Nueva España (meaning the “True History of the Conquest of New Spain”), in which he describes certain actions on the part of La Malinche, a Nahua woman who served Hernán Cortés as interpreter and concubine, and was a Christian convert. The discussion is about how realistic Díaz’s portrayal is, specifically regarding a passage where Cortés’s party visits the town where Malinche had been given by her family to human traffickers years earlier, and Díaz, retelling the events 50 years later, says Malinche forgave them, gave them unreasonably fine gifts, and sets for them a Christian example of devotion to her new Spanish husband (not Cortés, someone else), no doubt with proselytizing intent.

What I’d like to say with a single adjective is something that conveys autonomy on her part, independence, initiative, freedom from the influence of the soldiers she came with. Is there a word related to “possessing agency” which fills in this blank?

I’m not generally a cynical person but regarding the Conquistadors and the Church, you don’t even have to be cynical to recognize that they embellished their writing, and Christianizing an Indian woman and making her out to be more pure, forgiving, and _______________ than realistic makes the Spaniards look good.

Words which don’t fit because they either don’t capture the whole connotation or are too tortured to sound reasonable include: autonomous, potent, vital, independent, self-actualized, agency-having, and so on.

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    How about empowered?
    – Jim
    Oct 6, 2022 at 16:27
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    You've already written something that conveys autonomy on her part. I can't see any reason why you don't want to use autonomous. All the other characteristics you mention (independence, initiative, freedom from the influence of the soldiers) are implicit in autonomous. Oct 6, 2022 at 17:12
  • @FumbleFingers Sure, it wouldn't be exactly wrong but it wouldn't emphasize what I want to emphasize or feel/sound the way I want to write, those are the reasons.
    – Beanluc
    Oct 6, 2022 at 17:44
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    What is wrong with "autonomous" or "independent"?
    – Stuart F
    Oct 7, 2022 at 14:22
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    "independent" is the answer; "autonomous" is generally not used for individual humans, but for sociopolitical groups, or machines. "empowered" is some late 20th-C US buzzword that has become devalued to meaninglessness by psychobabble, management-speak and a thousand Dilberts.
    – smci
    Oct 7, 2022 at 18:30

10 Answers 10

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One word for this is autonomous, defined by Merriam-Webster as:

existing or capable of existing independently

Collins defines it as

An autonomous person makes their own decisions rather than being influenced by someone else.

Autonomous individuals are those who follow their own courses of action relatively unimpeded by others

Another that’s less formal and more common is independent, but the connotations feel slightly different to me. Being capable of existing independently is a closer match for “having agency” than being independent.

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  • Both good words. The OP dismisses them for reasons I fail to understand.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 7, 2022 at 14:22
  • @StuartF it’s true that they do mention them. If they mean something slightly different, it’s going to be hard to express that when even a longer explanation doesn’t get the meaning across.
    – Davislor
    Oct 7, 2022 at 15:54
  • I'm accepting this answer, though I actually went with "empowered" but Jim put his answer in a comment.
    – Beanluc
    Oct 9, 2022 at 23:41
  • @Beanluc Thanks. Empowered is a great one, too.
    – Davislor
    Oct 9, 2022 at 23:50
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Surely 'cynical', 'Conquistadors', 'embellished' and 'Christianizing' demonstrate a high register, with which 'autonomous' fits well? (I'd also add an 'is' before 'realistic' here.)

Self-determining is another possibility:

self-determining [adjective]

...

(of a person) having the power or freedom to control their own life.

  • "the individual feels competent and self-determining"

[Oxford Languages, via Google]

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  • in the same vein of "self-determining": "self-directed" is another possibility Oct 9, 2022 at 17:33
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Could you rephrase slightly?:

I'm not generally a cynical person but regarding the Conquistadors and the Church, you don't even have to be cynical to recognize that they embellished their writing, and Christianizing an Indian woman and making her out to be more pure, forgiving and possessing more agency than realistic makes the Spaniards look good.

Alternatively, if you want to maintain the parallel structure:

Christianizing an Indian woman and making her out to be purer, more forgiving and higher-agency than realistic makes the Spaniards look good.

Moving "more pure" to "purer" and folding "more" into "more forgiving" instead of the start of the list means you remove the awkwardness of "more high agency" in the original phrasing.

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    These are good suggestions.
    – Beanluc
    Oct 7, 2022 at 0:23
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The standard adjective seems to fit:

OED

agential, adj.

Of, belonging, or relating to an agent or agency (in various senses of the nouns); that is or acts as an agent.

1843 J. O. Dakeyne Baptismal Regeneration 57 I was not aware..that her [sc. the Church's] part in the matter of administering the hallowing the rite [of Baptism] was anything more than agential.

1872 F. Hall Rec. Exempl. False Philol. 60 To obtain an agential substantive complementing the verb photograph.

2003 L. K. Graham in J. N. Poling & C. C. Neuger Men's Work in Preventing Violence against Women v. xxi. 368 Until she sought help..Anna was a rather helpless receptor..of her husband's agential power used violently to subordinate and control her.

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  • Thanks, I like this because it is standard and is derivative of precisely the word I want to use. It doesn't seem like it applies to a person indicating possession of the trait, though. Anna's husband's power is agential, but I don't think we'd say the man is. Same with the administress of the baptism - her part was agential, I don't think we'd say she was. The third example (second in your order) isn't even talking about a person, and describes function, not attribution. I'll consider whether "agentious" is likely to be understood by my audience and not sound too made-up.
    – Beanluc
    Oct 6, 2022 at 17:42
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    You can be agential in doing something. The adjective is not merely attributive, it can be predicative.
    – Greybeard
    Oct 6, 2022 at 17:57
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    Honestly. I'm not sure I'd want to use this. I've never heard it in my life, so probably most readers haven't, either, and on first seeing it I read it as a-genital meaning without genitals. Not the impression you want to give to your readers :D
    – Davor
    Oct 7, 2022 at 7:24
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    It's in the OED and Merriam-Webster but not Macmillan or Cambridge; it seems to be used in psychology and philosophy of mind but not outside academia. I'd be sceptical about using such a rare word in a non-social-science text unless you are certain its meaning can be inferred from context and morphology.
    – Stuart F
    Oct 7, 2022 at 14:20
  • Agentic. en.wiktionary.org/wiki/…. Oct 7, 2022 at 17:54
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Just making @Jim's comment under the question an answer:

Empowered was the first word that came to my mind as well. The Merriam-Webster entry defines it as

having the knowledge, confidence, means, or ability to do things or make decisions for oneself.

This describes exactly what you want to express about La Malinche.

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Spirited fits the context well, and implies lively and courageous behaviour - very much related to independence and initiative.

The abrupt departure of Miss Butterworth left Mr. Belcher piqued and surprised. Although he regarded himself as still " master of the situation " to use his own pet phrase, - - the visit of that spirited woman had in various ways humiliated him. To sit in his own library, with an intruding woman who not only was not afraid of him but despised him, to sit before her patiently and be called " Bob Belcher, " and a brute, and not to have the privilege of kicking her out of doors, was the severest possible trial of his equanimity. She left him so suddenly that he had not had the opportunity to insult her, for he had fully intended to do this before she retired. (Sevenoaks; Holland, J. G.)

He was high on our list of special victims to be paid off for atrocities in Missouri. But his wife saved him by rolling him up inside a rug, dragging him out into the backyard and piling furniture on top of him, while we set fire to their house and stood around waiting for him to emerge. Another spirited woman, like Mrs. Lane, whom I have to admire. It's a wonder to me how those miserable Jayhawking bastards could have won the devotion of such fine brave women. (Confessions of Johnny Ringo; Geoff Aggeler)

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  • Also, while it might not fit well in this context, the more informal spunky.
    – Davislor
    Oct 7, 2022 at 22:40
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The Christian lingo is "conviction".

Most Christian clergy 100 years ago would express antisemitism such as this

  • I feel the conviction of the holy spirit to convert Jews and make them realise their rebellion for rejecting the lord Jesus Chris.

Such antisemitism is still widespread, though.

conviction (kənˈvɪkʃən) n

  1. the state or appearance of being convinced
  2. a fixed or firmly held belief, opinion, etc
  3. the act of convincing
  4. (Law) the act or an instance of convicting or the state of being convicted
  5. carry conviction to be convincing conˈvictional adj

Collins English Dictionary – Complete and Unabridged, 12th Edition 2014 © HarperCollins Publishers 1991, 1994, 1998, 2000, 2003, 2006, 2007, 2009, 2011, 2014

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"self-reliant" might fit your context well.

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You could write possessed of agency, or agency-possessing. Possessing agency would also work, though I'm not certain it's MLA-standard grammar.

making her out to be more pure, forgiving and possessed of agency than realistic

making her out to be more pure, forgiving and agency-possessing than realistic

making her out to be more pure, forgiving and possessing agency than realistic

The last version could be reworded:

making her out to be more pure and forgiving, and possessing more agency, than realistic

While agential appears to be a word, it's not very common (my browser says it's not a real word), and I'm not sure a reader would know what it meant. The sentences above are less likely to cause confusion.

Also, I'm not sure it's accurate in this context. Merriam-Webster defines it as "related to, or expressive of, an agent or agency", where "agency" refers to a group of people, not the concept of free-will. The Free Dictionary defines it as "Used to describe a case of nouns that identify the person performing the action of a verb, for example, 'singer'." (Though it also misspelled "performing", so I'm not sure how reliable it is.) On the other hand, Wikipedia has an article on agential realism that uses the term more like you are intending, so it could be fine.

As for word choice, I'm not sure whether agency or autonomy is more accurate to what you're describing here. In general, agency is the ability to affect the world around you, while autonomy is acting without people guiding your every step.

In your example, we might talk about her agency being limited, in that she's not allowed to behave in a manner perceived as non-Christian. Or we might talk about her autonomy being limited, in that she's not allowed to interact with the village locals without constant supervision.

(After writing this, I noticed your comment that agency-having wasn't a good fit. I think agency-possessing is better, but having agency sounds like it would work in your example too.)

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Maybe you're looking for uncoerced or acting on her own volition?

Coerced, according to Oxford Languages:

persuade (an unwilling person) to do something by using force or threats

So uncoerced, the opposite, would seem to be "willing, done entirely of one's own volition".

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