Ask Mint | Words to vilify the ‘common man’

Ask Mint | Words to vilify the ‘common man’
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First Published: Mon, Dec 17 2007. 12 44 AM IST

V.R. Narayanaswami
V.R. Narayanaswami
Updated: Mon, Dec 17 2007. 12 44 AM IST
V.R. Narayanaswami
Government of the people, by the people, for the people”: when I declaimed these words at a university oratorical contest, the judge of the day said, “Wrong stress. It should be government of the people, by the people, for the people. Lincoln would have stressed people three times.” I was inclined to agree with him.
Lincoln also said, “The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here.” History has proved him wrong. The world has Lincoln’s words etched in memory and, therefore, the world remembers Gettysburg too.
After Gettysburg, politicians have been continually glorifying and lionizing the common man, the man in the street. New slogans are created to refer to this powerful segment of society, which has to be propitiated. A recently added synonym is India’s contribution, “aam aadmi”, a straight translation of “the common man”. The words have begun to appear?in?media headlines. There is magic in the words, and that is being fully exploited.
Democracy was born in the city states of Greece. Athenian democracy has been called a men’s club, because women were excluded from the right to vote. So were slaves. Greek citizens themselves could qualify only if both their parents were Greek. Within these limits, democracy ensured direct participation by the citizen in running the state.
From Greece to post-colonial India, we have come a long way. From Latin we got the phrase, “Vox populi, vox dei”. This was not really a pro-democracy slogan; it was part of a plea to Emperor Charlemagne from one of his associates that he should not trust those who chanted this slogan. As in other parts of the world, society was divided into haves and have-nots. The Romans institutionalized this division by drawing a line between patricians and plebeians. A patrician was one born of a noble father. The plebs were the common people, the artisans, the workers. The dictionary equates plebeian with unrefined, coarse, and vulgar.
France became a bastion of democracy in the days of the 1789 Revolution. In place of patricians, there were the first estate or the nobility and the second estate or the clergy. The common people, including artisans, peasants and the bourgeoisie, formed the third estate. The revolution marked the rise of the third estate.
In the name of democracy, we glorify and sometimes deify the common people. Ironically, we also brand them with new names that express contempt rather than admiration.
In Shakespeare’s Merchant of Venice, the Prince of Arragon, who has to pass a lottery to win Portia’s hand, refuses to be aligned with the common people, “the fool multitude”. He says: “I will not jump with common spirits and rank me with the barbarous multitudes.” Shakespeare brings him down to earth by rewarding him with a fool’s head instead of Portia’s hand.
If you want to pour contempt on people, use a foreign word or phrase. “Hoi polloi” is one such, an exotic-sounding Greek phrase which can be translated as “the many”. But the attitude is the same. The phrase refers condescendingly to the riff-raff or the rabble, who lack education and cultivation. No wonder the snobbish aristocrats said they wanted their children out of the company of the hoi polloi.
The language of deprecation soon came up with a phrase with greater sting in “the great unwashed”, which referred to the multitude. That is as physical as you can get with insulting people. The thesaurus is liberal with synonyms for this expression: base born, ignoble, lowly, vulgar. Unfazed by the social stigma intended by the term, two brothers, David and Hamish Kilgour, named their music band The Great Unwashed!
Like hoi polloi, the word “lumpen” was borrowed from Europe and refers to the mob. The word is a shortened form of the German-French compound, “lumpenproletariat”. Marx used the word to refer to the unemployed and unproductive sections, who lacked class consciousness. Today, the Marxian sense has been diluted into the general sense of “uneducated, unenlightened, unrefined.”
The vocabulary of vilification, expressing our prejudice against the common people, conflicts with our faith in the sovereignty of the people. It was Carl Sandburg, American poet and Pulitzer laureate, who gave the most articulate expression to the disillusionment of the people. In his poem, I am the People, the Mob, he protests the snubs and slights that the common people are exposed to. Speaking for the people, he says: “I am the working man, the inventor, the maker of the world’s food and clothes.” In an outburst of anger, he warns that the patience of the people will soon run out. Then “there will be no speaker in all the world/ say the name ‘The People’ with any fleck of a/sneer in his voice or any far-off smile of derision./The mob—the crowd—the mass—willarrive then.”
V.R. Narayanaswami, a former professor of English, has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He will look at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
Comments can be sent to plainspeaking@livemint.com
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First Published: Mon, Dec 17 2007. 12 44 AM IST