Thursday, September 24, 2009

A Brief, Yet Boring Excursion into Linguistics...

In a comment posted a few days ago, Bandit rhetorically asked how civil people can have a civil war. Then Eminence Griese weighed in on the topic, challenging me to dig deep into the cobwebby recesses of my poor, crowded brain and discuss not civility per se (which I've pretty well beaten to death, thanks very much), but the derivation of the word. As one who is fascinated by Linguistics and Semantics, I could hardly turn down a challenge like that.

If you don't enjoy pedantic sojourns into linguistic history, come back tomorrow. Otherwise, read on.

The origin of the word civility (as well as the words civil, civilian, civilization, citizen, city, and many others) is the Latin word civitas, meaning city-state (i.e., Rome). The original meaning had to do with the responsibilities of a Roman as a member (a civilian, if you will) of the city-state of Rome, and the civilized (worthy of living in a city-state) behavior expected of him or her.

The term civil grew to have many meanings, some of which include: "of or relating to citizens; of or relating to the state or its citizenry; of, relating to, or involving the general public, their activities, needs, or ways, or civic affairs as distinguished from special (as in military or religious) affairs." Looking at the word in this way, we can see how civil people (those who exhibit the behavior expected of citizens) can engage in a civil war (a war conducted between opposing groups of citizens of the same country).

You can trust me on this one...I studied Latin for three years. Of course, two of those years were spent trying to get out of Latin I, but that's beside the point.

The bottom line: our concepts of civility - the good civic behavior expected of good citizens - goes all the way back to ancient Rome. And where Rome used to be, today we have ... Italy, the land of the government-of-the-week, the Red Brigades, and Silvio Berlusconi.

Practice civility. Be a good citizen. Don't let this happen to us.

Have a good day. More thoughts tomorrow.



Anonymous said...


Thank you very much! Best short exposition on the issue I have ever seen. For your reward, I will send you an email with a shaggy dog story with the worst pun ever.

Eminence Grise

Bandit said...

Thanks for the info. I meant to ask you that silly oxymoron qustion on your civility blogs but forgot.

Here's another: Is an oxymoron an airhead?

Mike had a post about oxymorons recently. I scrolled back through his previous post but could not find it.

Mike said...

Bandit, that was on Johns comments where I said the only oxymoron I knew was Billy Mays. I know that's not being civil towards a dead person but there were a lot of people that wished him into his present state. (I got civil AND state in there)

Mrs. Geezerette said...

"France on Wednesday led a walkout of a dozen delegations, including the United States, to protest a fiery speech by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to the UN General Assembly."

Do you consider this walkout incivility? Or was it justified? You know what I think of Ahmadinejad and what he deserves.

Amanda said...

That was interesting. I always enjoy your posts on the origins of words.