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Word of the Day: CIVIL

Word of the Day: CIVIL

When the Gauls under their chieftain Brennus — lop off the nominative ending and we have Brenn or something near, possibly just the man’s title, which the Romans heard as a name (early modern Welsh BRENHIN = KING) — broke into Rome for the first time, they were greeted by a strange silence, says Livy, that struck them with a kind of fear and awe. They saw the great public buildings, apparently empty. Then they walked past the houses of the senators, and in them they saw the august old men, seated, waiting. The old men had decided not to flee with the rest of the people to the citadel, because they did not want to be a drain on the food supplies. So they sat in their senatorial garb, stolid and defiant, until one of the Gauls plucked an old fellow by the beard, and he slapped him in return. That broke the spell, and the old men were slaughtered.

That was what Livy thought was CIVIL behavior, that is, a demeanor fit for a great CIVITAS, not for a cheap brothel in the suburbs, not for the farms, and not for the backwoods and the mountainsides whence such imposing half-brutes as the Gauls had come. It isn’t just that the senators did not cuss. Perhaps they did. It is that they felt themselves to belong to a CIVIS, a society, a community — the first implying a fundamental friendship, the second, the sharing of MUNERA or duties. Later, when Rome swelled to over a million residents, any sense of friendship or at least long-standing family enmity, or the sacred fulfillment of common duties, had largely vanished; the CITY then was where you got the free bread and the best and bloodiest entertainment: PANEM ET CIRCENSES, says the sour satirist Juvenal. But the ancient meaning of CIVIS is a profoundly personal one. It implies comfortableness with others; as a baby is at ease in his CUNA, CRADLE, a word that is cognate with CIVIS.

Grimm tells us that Indo European K became Germanic H, so we have, instead of KIW-, Germanic HIW-, in Anglo Saxon HIWAN, a close association of kin and their retainers, a HIWSCIPE, which word was eventually replaced by FAMILY, from Latin FAMILIA. So we have a word whose observable and unsurprising development comes to define almost exactly the opposite of what it meant at first. For now, the LAST place where you will experience that fellow feeling, that sense of familiarity, kinship, and common duties, is the CITY. You do not go to the City of Brotherly Love to find Brotherly Love. If you want that, you had better go to a small town, or to an Amish village.

People now complain that our politicians are no longer CIVIL, meaning I guess that they do not say “pardon me” while they cane an opponent on the floor of the Senate, as might happen on occasion in the days of Davy Crockett. But I do take the point. It is not now that people fall below the standards of the CIVIL, but that there are hardly any standards to begin with.

If women were once the guardians of politesse, there ain’t nobody watching it anymore. Lady professors going off to teach undergraduates speak like ill-bred farm boys slopping hogs. Edwardian women extended their pinkies while drinking tea; contemporary gals prefer beer, and it’s not the pinky they extend. Construction workers, without the skills or the muscles. And the men? Forget it. The CITY gives us no CIVILITY to which to strive, and a farmer who shows up at church on a Sunday will be far more URBANE than the secular accountant elbowing his way onto the city subway on Monday morning. In a way, the CITY is something of a fiction, a thing with a name that no longer fits. In Canada, where we live in the summer, small towns and coherent suburban cities have been gobbled up into great big amorphous “regional municipalities,” with acronyms instead of real names: like our nearby CBRM, the Cape Breton Regional Municipality. Kind of makes your heart go a-flutter, the good ol’ CBRM.