Weekly Word Watch: civility, poorface, and Schadenfreude
This week on the Word Watch, the words are getting heated, from politics to weather to sport.
Last weekend, the owner of a Washington DC-area restaurant refused service to Sarah Sanders, President Trump’s press secretary, on moral grounds. Sanders tweeted about the incident the following morning, sparking a days-long debate in the commentariat.
Many, including Republicans and Democrats, felt the incident only serves to deepen divisions in the populace. Others cried sanctimony and hypocrisy, pointing to Trump’s own notorious name-calling – not to mention the right to protest. At the center of this controversy emerged a buzzword: civility.
Civility is ‘politeness and courtesy in behaviour and speech’, evidenced by the mid-1500s. The Oxford English Dictionary adds that the word has come to connote ‘the minimum degree’ of such decorum in a social situation.
Dating to the late 1300s, the earliest meaning of civility, though, was ‘citizenship’. This points us back to the word’s roots: via French, civility ultimately comes from the Latin civis, or ‘citizen’, especially as distinct from a soldier. Civilian preserves this idea today, and indeed the very word citizen also traces back to civis, as does city and more conspicuous derivatives like civic and civilization.
Civil, then, has an etymological sense of ‘suitable conduct for citizens’ – a sense of the root the Romans knew well, too, as their native civilis is also documented to mean ‘unassuming’, among other legal valences yielding the likes of civil partnership.
In The Independent this week, British food writer and activist Jack Monroe criticized a practice she calls poorface, or ‘the mockery and minstrel performance whereby someone in a position of privilege pretends to be poor for a day, in order to “experience poverty for themselves”.’
Her coinage is modeled on blackface, a racist form of entertainment popular in the US in the 19th and 20th centuries. These odious minstrel shows involved non-black actors putting on makeup to mock the appearance of black people. The term blackface, established in the written record by the mid-1800s, inspired related terms in the 20th and 21st centuries, including yellowface (a similar portrayal of East Asian persons), redface (Native Americans), and brownface, subject of recent disputes over the stereotyping of Indian people and culture in the character of Apu on The Simpsons.
While Monroe’s broader cultural critique of ‘poverty tourism’ was well received, many readers took issue with her choice of the word poorface, feeling it ignores the specifically racialized history of blackface and overlooks the intersection of race and class in society. Monroe later apologized for the term.
The concept of Monroe’s poorface – the performative mockery of a marginalized group – isn’t exactly novel, though. Scholars have called out so-called gayface and fatface, or the blackface equivalents for queer and overweight persons.
Nevertheless, Monroe’s poorface and its ensuing fallout only underscore a theme we observe on the Word Watch week after week: the centrality of identity in contemporary society, our sensitivity to its discourse, and how those forces influence our language for it in the end, even when we have the best intentions.
The heatwave over the UK and Ireland this week has brought soaring temperatures – and a weather phenomenon, and term, unfamiliar to many in these parts.
This week, residents in Powys, Wales were surprised to spot a small whirlwind of detritus and debris. They’re called dust devils, and they form when an updraught of warm air near the surface begins to rotate.
You spin me right round, baby 🌪
This is what can happen in a heatwave pic.twitter.com/zD52ZyAGTF
— BBC Wales News (@BBCWalesNews) June 26, 2018
This nomenclature of devil, recorded in the 18th century, is apparently Indian in origin, borrowed into English as a transliteration of native terms like the Sanskrit-based pishachi, or a ‘she-demon’. Their sudden appearance and startling behaviour could certainly strike one as diabolical.
Meteorology hosts a whole pantheon of such devils, too, including sand devils, snow devils, coal devils, and steam devils. There are even fire devils – yes, a spinning column of flame and ash.
For the first time in 80 years, defending champions Germany crashed out of the group stage of the World Cup in an upset by South Korea.
Many viewers weren’t rattling any lozhkas at the shock defeat. Nor were they speechless like the Deutsche players and fans post-match. No, many a headline writer and tweeter took, cheekily, to the German language itself: Schadenfreude, they felt of the Teutonic titans, or the ‘pleasure derived by someone from another’s misfortune’.
— Peter Spiegel (@SpiegelPeter) June 27, 2018
Schadenfreude joins the German Schaden (‘harm’, related to the English scathe) and Freude (‘joy’, whose base has been connected to the English frolic and frog). The word is mentioned as early as 1852 in a philological lecture, a terribly useful if spiteful borrowing that has since topped many a listicle of the best ‘untranslatables’ and greatest ‘long German words’.
Which raises the question: What’s the German word for using a long German word that doesn’t have a precise equivalent in another language?