You Must Pay the Rent! Churls, Boors, Villains, and other malfeasants

Country folk get a bad rap in the English language (indeed, in most languages). Five months ago, we glanced at the word villain. The word once denoted a farmhand, but now universally refers to the antagonist of a story or a situation. Back in October, I puzzled about why we should equate productive men of the soil with calumny and scheming. After all, none of the great villains of Shakespeare or Virgil are peasants.

As it turns out, we can chalk up the journey from rural hired hand to malefactor to garden-variety classism. Workers bound to a villa (plantation) were considered rough and unmannered, especially compared with knights and squires. Indeed, villeins formed an official social class in feudal Europe, much as peóns did in colonial Latin America. Since hayseeds couldn’t tell a dinner fork from an oyster fork, and also since they knew nothing of courtly manners, they must be to blame for crimes most foul, at least in the minds of the nobility. Hence, villain, the bad guy/gal.

Two other English words also make the leap from “country rube” to “disagreeable person,” meaning-wise. Boor means “farmer,” and comes from the same Germanic root that gave us the Dutch boer. And like villain, the word assumes a certain lack of refinement — in fact, that is the very definition of boor in modern English. Churls were one rung above the villeins, being free farmers rather than serfs, but all that means is they got off the hook for murder, theft, and world domination. Instead, their coarse ways gave us the adjective churlish and the noun churl, an ill-tempered, rude person. I’d rather have world domination.

Lest we let the upper classes off the hook too easily, the words bourgeois and bourgeoisie came to describe the middle and upper-middle classes. It acquired its perjorative connotation of vain materialism during the French revolution, when it was well-earned. Karl Marx hammered the final nails in the coffin of bourgeois respectability, at least in common-use English.

Interestingly, both bourgeois (think burgher) and villain are words which etymologically suggest “city dweller.” So I guess the agrarians get their linguistic revenge in the end, proving that an Arkansas toothpick beats an oyster fork any day.

 – Otto E. Mezzo

Two numbers walk into a bar…

220 and 284 walk into a bar. “Hey!” the craft mixologist yells, “we don’t serve your kind here!”

“I thought public houses are open to the public!” the outraged numbers shoot back.

“We recently re-branded as a social club. We only serve sociable numbers.”

“We assure you, we won’t cause trouble,” the still fuming numbers insist. “We’re quite amicable.”

“You don’t look very friendly to me,” sneers the cocktail artisan, refreshing his mustache wax. “Come back when you’re betrothed and we’ll talk.”

“What about me?” asks 496, sitting at the bar typing on a vintage Underwood.

“You can stay. You’re perfect!”

The First Kiss of Adam and Eve

Woman & Man

MAN: “1. An adult human male; 2. A human being of either sex; a person.”

WOMAN: “An adult human female”

Oxford English Dictionary

Lexicide’s mailbox is often stuffed with myths, mishearings, and misapprehensions. One of the most common misunderstandings we get involves the origins and usage of man and woman.

First things first: woman does not mean “from man (a male person).” That folk etymology comes from Genesis 2:23:

And Adam said, “This is now bone of my bones, and flesh of my flesh: she shall be called Woman, because she was taken out of Man.” (King James Version)

In Hebrew, the words for woman and man (אִשָּׁה ishah and אִיש ish) might carry this relationship, although there is considerable debate about that. In English, however, the origins of the words man and woman are clearly recorded. Woman comes from Old English wifmann, meaning “female person”, and man comes from Old English mann, meaning… “person.”

If you’re wondering why Old English was so sexist as to use the same word for “human” and “male”, well, it wasn’t. The male counterpart to a wifmann was a wermann, wer* being a cognate of the Latin vir, meaning strength or power (as in a virile triumvirate). Wif gave us the obvious “wife” and meant… “wife.”

Okay, so maybe Old English had a male-centric bent. I had heard once that wif was related to weave (women presumably doing much of the warping and woofing), but current scholarship no longer favors that connection. Women were meant to be wives and wermen were meant to have power. Hey, no one said pre-Enlightenment Anglophones were enlightened.

For modern English writers, the question arises: is it okay to use man as a stand-in for all people? The situation is complicated by our rich treasury of man quotations:

For man also knoweth not his time… (Ecclesiastes 9:12, KJV)

No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main… (John Donne)

Man is the cruelest animal. (Friedrich Nietzsche)

I could go on. Proponents of gender-neutral language would urge us to use person, humanity or humankind in place of man, and I certainly grant that when it works, go for it. But in other instances, might sometimes man be the right word?

What a piece of work is man! How noble in reason! How infinite in faculty! In form, in moving, how express and admirable! In action how like an angel! In apprehension how like a god! The beauty of the world! The paragon of animals! And yet, to me, what is this quintessence of dust? (Hamlet, Act II, Scene 2)

Setting aside the fact we don’t mess with Shakespeare’s words, would this monologue be improved if it were “What a piece of work is humanity”?

What about Neil Armstrong’s famous utterance? Would it have had the same power if he’d said “That’s one small step for a man, one giant leap for humankind”?

Those are good questions. But most of us are not Shakespeare, Donne, or Armstrong. For that matter, most of us won’t ever address the human condition in a brochure or web page. If we do, we have the option to craft phrases which are inclusive and poetic at the same time – at least until the client changes them.

 – Otto E. Mezzo

*Wer survives today in only one modern English word: werewolf (“man wolf”).

References: http://www.balashon.com/2008/10/ish-and-isha.html

https://www.etymonline.com/word/woman

https://medium.com/interesting-histories/interesting-histories-female-male-woman-man-fd8f436a554c

Demonyms: Citizens’ Arrest

Back in October, I asked what one called residents of Oklahoma City, Salt Lake City, Atlantic City, etc. This is because Reader Eddie suggested they should be Citizens, as in Oklahoma Citizens, and so on. As is typical of my readership, I got a lot of smart-alecky responses to my serious inquiry (“Okies, Mormons, vagrants”) but no sober, informed data.

That’s because I didn’t consult Wikipedia (the ever-reliable font of sober, informed data!). Turns out there is an entire article called List of adjectivals and demonyms for citiesHuzzah!

Rummaging through the list, you’ll find someone from Carson City is a Carsonite (since the city was founded on silver mines, I find the mineral-oriented “ite” suffix appropriate). A Kansas City resident is a Kansas Citian (blech). Oklahoma City is home to Oklahoma Cityans (double blech), and SLC supports its population of Salt Lakers. Atlantic City is not relevant enough to be on this list, apparently.

A couple of interesting demonyms show their colors here. I did not know people from Buenos Aires are Porteños. Ho Chi Minh City dwellers still call themselves Saigoners or Saigonese, and if you hail from Mexico City, you are thankfully not a Mexico Cityan, but a Capitalino.

And sorry, Eddie. The uniform demonym for ville (Nashville, Louisville, even Seville) is villian, not villain.

Eames chairs

Retro (a retrospective on retrograde)

RETRO: “Imitative of a style or fashion from the recent past.” – Oxford English Dictionary

Reader David Elliot commented on last month’s article:

I understood the term ‘retro’ as we use it in English coming to us from the French adjective ‘rétrograde’ originally, used as a shortened bit of slang in the 60s.

I believe that’s the earliest use in English vernacular and commercial copy to mean throwback or vintage (not its academic or scientific use).

So, that makes the Mossberg mark that much more precise.

D.E. is right on the time frame. Almost all authorities date retro to 1960s France, with common usage in English booming in the early 1970s. But here sources diverge as to whether retro derives from rétrograde, as he cites, or rétrospectif. Merriam-Webster favors rétrospectif whereas the OED (Lexicide’s go-to source) throws its beret in with rétrograde. Two French dictionaries cite rétrospectif as the source.

Rétrospectif is directly equivalent to the English retrospective (“looking back”), so that etymology makes sense. I wondered, however, if rétrograde carries the same negative color as its English counterpart. Here’s where I consulted with French teacher Erin, who in turn contacted one of her French amis. She replied: “C’est négatif et obscurantiste.”

There aren’t many words we don’t know at Lexicide, but obscurantist (in English) definitely drove us to the dictionary. (Obscurantism is “the practice of deliberately preventing the facts or full details of something from becoming known,” according to Oxford.) So oui, rétrograde is just as much of an insult in the francosphere as it is the anglosphere.

Reader Andy also commented on retrograde and retro:

It’s funny how “retro” has become a word unto itself. It’s not merely a descriptive prefix, or an abbreviation for “retrograde,” but it seems to specifically refer to style or design, and it carries a positive (or at least nostalgic) connotation.

It’s also oddly specific. Nobody would refer to Conestoga wagons or Gregorian chant as “retro,” though they come from earlier times. It seems to me that “retro” refers to the zeitgeist of Americana in the 1950s through perhaps the 1980s, though I expect this will expand as the population ages. “Retro” needs to have occurred within living memory and needs to have been part of a pop-culture movement that has definitely ended, AND has since been re-imagined or mythologized.

Having studied philosophy in college, we’re not surprise Andy latched on to this. Of course, retro is not pinned to a specific era, but to nostalgia, and one can’t be nostalgic over things one didn’t live through. The Wikipedia article offers a good summary on retro’s origins and future.

– Otto E. Mezzo

Retrograde

RETROGRADE: “Reverting to an earlier and inferior condition.” – Oxford English Dictionary

This dropped last week:

Mossberg Announces Retrograde Pump-Action Shotguns

Designed to commemorate Mossberg’s 100th anniversary in 2019, the Retrograde Series features the two most iconic police and military pump-action shotguns, built to today’s standards, but with the retro look and feel of a walnut stock and matching corncob fore-end.

So… Mossberg decided to market these shotguns as “Retrograde” as opposed to “vintage”, “historic”, or simply “retro”, a descriptor they use in this press release.

Why is this a problem? Because unlike the above terms, retrograde carries negative connotations – just like opinionated, simplistic, stagnant, and reactionary. Yet people (including firearms marketers) seem to be oblivious to this distinction and use these words in neutral or (in this case) positive contexts.

[At this point, the THUNDER of HORSES – dozens of them, a veritable horde! – interrupts Otto in mid-complaint. A COOPER in a MAGA hat pushes his way to the front.]

                  COOPER
Come down off your high horse, Otto! Retrograde just means what it sounds like – “something from the past!” Like hand-crafted oak hogsheads and Justin Timberlake! Ain’t nothing wrong with that!

[OTTO, unfazed, Googles retrograde and displays the results:]

Then there’s Trump’s new pick for attorney general, William P. Barr. Aside from Sessions and Otis, it would be hard to find a more retrograde, anti-reform candidate to head up the Justice Department.

(The Washington Post, “Let’s Stop Pretending That Trump Cares About Criminal Justice Reform,” 11 December, 2018)

Labour leader Councillor Lisa Eldret called the Conservative plans “retrograde” andadded that they would “set us back for decades to come”.

(DerbyshireLive, “Row over Assembly Rooms plandeepens ahead of cabinet meeting,” 11 December, 2018)

A lot of classic holiday specials have horrible retrograde messages. That just makes them quintessential Americana.

(Salon.com, “It’s not just “Rudolph”: Holiday TV specials are mostly creepy, weird or depressing as hell,” 13 December, 2018)
                    WHALER
Slander most foul! So “conservative” is the same as “backward” and “unenlightened”? I should expect as much from The Washington Post and Salon.

                    PHONE BOOK AD COPYWRITER
Excuse me, Otto, but you’re wrong. Retro is the cat’s pajamas, pops! So why not retrograde?

                    OTTO
Do I really have to answer that? Hey! Why am I talking in Academy screenwriting format? Why is it spaced with tab stops and set in Courier?

                   WILLIAM FAULKNER
Because now you, too, are the very embodiment, the very spirit, the essence of retrograde, whose putrid, mortifying calumny clung to the words – those nouns, those adjectives, those interjections – BANG! – you claim to cherish but instead bleed of all joy. Like me, as I lay dying.

Right or wrong, retrograde carries negative connotations,so instead use traditional, historic, antique, vintage, throwback, or retro.

– Otto E. Mezzo

From the New York Times: This Grammar Guru Will Solve the World’s Problems

If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a thousand times, Lexicide don’t do no grammar. However, we’re not above a feel-good story, especially when it covers a kindred spirit (and in the New York Times, no less):

This Grammar Guru Will Solve the World’s Problems

Ellen Jovin has a lot more courage than Lex and Otto. You’ll never see us battle the Jehovah’s Witnesses for sidewalk space!

Demonyms: the Final Words

I didn’t expect to write five posts on demonyms, but here we must brake the trolley, this time outside the Anglosphere. My aside on growing up Chinese American (as opposed to, say, Chinish or Chinesque American) took me back to the days of Chinese school, those glorious Sunday afternoons spent indoors practicing calligraphy and vocabulary instead of playing kickball or jumping bikes off curbs. In Chinese, we learned, the United States was mei guo (美国), literally “the beautiful country.” Americans are mei guo ren, or “beautiful country people.” I don’t know which Chinese came up with that, but as an American, I am flattered.

Mei Guo written in traditional Chinese script. This is the way I learned to write it.

Also as an American, I’m conflicted, as there are two continents called America, so technically Chileans and El Salvadorans are also American. No other country seems to have the awkward co-opting of an entire continent, much less two. Well, there is Australia, of course, but the country and the continent are synonymous. For the one other nation that takes the name of its continent, South African rolls easily off the tongue in a way that United States of American does not. But non-Americans tell me there’s no cause for angst. Spanish speaking Latin Americans describe residents of the United States as estadounidense. And everyone else in the world just calls us Americans without a second thought. My sister reported that her German freunden used the informal Ami.

Too bad we and the rest of the world don’t pay Deutschlanders the same consideration. No other country’s name (in my limited store of knowledge) is mangled overseas more than Deutschland. The French, Spanish, and Arabs call the country after the Alamanni tribe. The Finns call it Saksa after the Saxons. And the majority of the world, from Anglophones to Hindi speakers to Somalians, derive their designator from the Latin name for the region: Germania. (I have never read that Germans are put off by this, but they should be by the Lakota Sioux, whose word for Germany translates to “bad speaker land.”) Only the Swedes, Danes, Dutch, Norwegians, and Icelanders — interestingly, all linguistic neighbors to Germany — choose to honor the natives’ choice of country name with their own versions of Deutschland.

Wait, there’s one more people who get it right, or try to — the Chinese. Their name for Germany is de guo (德国), which literally translates to “Deutsch country,” but sounds like “land of virtue.” Ausgezeichnet!

 Otto E. Mezzo

Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Names_of_Germany

At -ese (A diversion on demonyms)

I always wondered why people and things from China and Japan are Chinese and Japanese, and not, say, Chinan and Japanian. As someone with Chinese ancestry, the word in English always had an exotic ring – a foreign ring. Growing up, none of my contemporaries in Virginia were an -ese. They were French, British, Irish, German, Swedish, Italian, Mexican, or African. Chinese and Japanese stood out, and when you’re a kid, that’s bad.

The suffix -ese still has an alien ring to my ears, which may be why the writers of Star Trek chose Klingonese as the demonym as opposed to Klingonian or Klingonite. Even Portuguese has an otherworldly air, even though it’s a kissing cousin to Spanish. Certainly Togolese and Congolese, which follow no orthographic logic in their formation, describe to me dense, inscrutable people.

But the origins of the suffix ­-ese are not so exotic to European folk. They come to English (as so many words do) from the French ­­-aise. Examples: Lyonnaise, hollandaise, and mayonnaise. No American is going to call mayonnaise exotic.

Thinking of demonyms for people from China brings up a suffix I didn’t cover last time: –man. Chinaman once carried the same neutral color as Englishman or Frenchman, only to gain its offensive tone the more it was spat instead of spoken. As you can see, what’s interesting about Chinaman is that it adds the ­-man suffix to an unmodified place name instead of the descriptor demonym. Chineseman would be more consistent. Of course, this is all before we get to the possible controversies of using “man” to describe both men and women. So a man from Man (the Isle) is a Manxman. But so is a woman from Man.

 Otto E. Mezzo