Wednesday, February 14, 2018
Town and Country
In the digital Times magazine I recently came upon an engaging essay by Wesley Morris entitled “The Cost of Being ‘Savage’ in a Supposedly Civilized World.” It’s not exactly about philology, but it’s not exactly about politics either. It perhaps illuminates some of the problems of what I call politology—the study of social abrasions exacerbated by a want of linguistic sophistication. I ran into an interesting politological instance in my scholarly reading a few months ago. In one of his numerous dedicatory sonnets to the Faerie Qveene (aka Fairy Queen)—this one addressed to the Earl of Ormond and Ossory—Spenser invites the dedicatee to accept his offering of “a simple taste of the wilde fruit which saluage soyl hath bred.” What I take this to mean, in simpler English, is this: I wrote this poem in Ireland, and it shows. A critical book I happened upon draws from the postured language of this obscure poem a plenary indictment of Spenser’s imperialism—indeed of three centuries of English foreign policy. And the adjective savage is “racist.”
Tout comprendre, c’est tout pardonner as they (supposedly) say in France. To understand all is to forgive all. I don’t believe that, but I do want to suggest that even full-throated condemnation is more plausible when founded in a certain degree of linguistic comprehension. When it comes to city slickers and country bumpkins such comprehension might begin with an acknowledgement of our tongue’s undisguised bias against the country, also known as the sticks, the boonies, the backofbeyond, flyover country, rural idiocy, etc., etc.
At first blush our old literature often idealizes rustic life. Cicero celebrates what modern sociologists call the “twilight farm”—that place that most of us dream of retiring to. Rural simplicity trumps urban complexity in several of Horace’s poems. One of the most famous meters of Boethius extolls the human felicity of the Golden Age—a mythic time prior not merely to urbanization, political organization, and commerce, but even before the first plow had cut the first furrow. But if we look to philological history, all that is exposed as philosophical posturing. Cities are good, the countryside—not so much so.
Let us briefly revisit savage. It would be hard to find unambiguously benign uses of that word in today’s English. But Spenser, who loves to write in pseudo-ye-olde half Latin, has the form saluage. The U is in there because in written Latin there was no distinction between the vocalic and the consonantal (V) graphemes. We still write double-V (W) but call it double-U. But the intrusive L shows you that Spenser knew that what was savage was characteristic of the silva, that is, the forest or woodland. Now it seems to me that living in a forest is not, in and of itself, evidence of moral turpitude. Yet aside from some Romantic authors from Rousseau to Fenimore Cooper, most folks would seem to think so. Live in a city (civitas) and you are civil and enjoy civilization. Live in the woods and you are a savage practicing savagery. Live on a rural route in the country (rus, ruris) and be a rustic. Live in a town (urbs) and be urbane.
The examples of this sort of thing in English are very numerous. An annotated glossary could easily make a volume. Here I have time for but a few, beginning perhaps with villain. This word in modern American English is limited to literary usage, meaning the bad guy (almost always masculine) in a work of dramatic or narrative fiction. From there we derive the general metaphoric sense of “the villain of the piece,” meaning the bad actor in any number of situations. But if you watch enough British cop shows on Netflix you will hear the word used of actual criminals. Yet a “villain” was originally simply a person living in or associated with a villa, or farmhouse. Thence came the associations of low social status characteristic of indentured agricultural labor in the medieval feudal system and also, of course, of all the vile characteristics of such persons as viewed through the eyes of their social superiors.
Farmers have gotten a particularly bad linguistic rap. The German word for “farmer” Bauer, is still relatively neutral, though it is not entirely free of the negative social implications of peasant and other Romance terms derived from Latin pagus (a rural area), which also gives us pagan. The old Germanic root seems to have meant simply a “dweller” or “inhabitant”, and in old agrarian societies the dwelling place was the country-side. But the Dutch version, boer (as in the Boer War) hints at what happened in English. If you came from down on the farm you were likely to be a boor, pick your nose, eat your gruel with your fingers, fart in church, and do other unpleasant, boorish things. What is uncouth can also be comical. This fact perhaps explains the semantic development of the word clown. Though more linguistically obscure than the other examples I have given, clown was another term for countryman or farm hand. Ben Jonson wanted to connect the word with Latin colonus, a dweller in a particular region, but I have my doubts. From its first early modern appearances it seems to invite the associations of risible contempt that come with yokel, which first appears in sporting lingo of the nineteenth century. This word, says the great philologist C. T. Onions, is “identical in form with the dialectical yokel green woodpecker, yellowhammer, of which it may be a figurative application.” Who knew? But better a peckerwood than a savage.
My next post will probably be delayed, once again, as we shall be for a spell in indisputably urban Santa Monica. Harry Shearer, a very funny guy whose weekly show I used to listen to on NPR, called Santa Monica “the home of the homeless.” We have social problems in this country so severe that you’ve got to laugh if you are going to keep from weeping.