Sunday, March 16, 2014

Word of the Day: “manure”

(And if you are already inclined to titter, that proves my point.)

Frequently to be met with, in these troublous times, is this quote from Thomas Jefferson (1787 -- thus, somewhat before the French revolution -- they took him at his word):

The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants.

We shall not comment on the current use of this phrase to justify some rather ill-advised assassinations, for our point here  is purely linguistic.

What you will seldom meet, is the co-text.  The very next sentence reads:

It is its natural manure.

In this case, the quoters may be fully excused for omitting that continuation.
Jefferson was writing for a highly educated and restricted 18th-century audience (indeed, the quotation in question  stems from a private letter).    He was not addressing the latter-day louts and yahoos  raised on “Animal House” and cable TV, for whom ‘manure’ means neither more nor less than excrement (and more likely to be flung, than planted).

An honorable man of metaphor;  no scatologist, he 

What, then,  is the linguistic landscape  here?  Any well-read person of our own day, knows that the word manure  is often used specifically for said substance as used for botanical fertilizer.  Jefferson was obviously alluding to this latter use.  But was he thereby averting his gaze (and trusting that his readers would likewise avert theirs) from a concrete central meaning -- the way, if we metaphorically refer to a statesman as an “eagle”, say, we wish purely to point to a kind of soaring nobility, and nowise to suggest that the fellow moults or eats mice?   To imagine that, is to get the semantic evolution  exactly backwards.

It is not the case that Jefferson was here bracketing an original defectatory sense  for the benefit of a metaphorical extension, the way (in the hippie era) “get your shit together” came to mean “get your act together (get your ducks in a row)” with no real excretory reference.   Rather, the excremental sense of the word manure is itself purely secondary -- indeed tertiary.   In origin, the word has nothing to do with that, indeed not even immediately to do with fertilizer of any variety. (Compare, mutatis mutandis, German Jauche.)  The word is cognate with our word manouevre (borrowed from French; a term in no wise redolent of the outhouse), and in terms of its Latin etymology  means  ‘handiwork’ (cf. manual, operate).


So, semantically, what has come to pass?

In the blandest, most schematic sense, we have here a case of specialization, followed by a familiar variety of metonymy (concrete for abstract [**]);  but that is of little interest.   What we wish to emphasize is that the evolution here is not a case of either euphemism or dysphemism, as you might imagine if you were under the misimpression that the cloacal sense was original.    Any taboo designatum will, predictably, launch a euphemistic replacement-term -- indeed, an ever-obsolescing, self-abolishing series of same, since the stain of the referent is not thereby abolished.   Thus, words denoting ‘excrement’, ‘genitals’, ‘prostitute’ and (interestingly) ‘stupid’, form a never-ending series of neologisms  attempting to escape from what they mean.   Here, rather, we are confronted with a situation almost exactly opposite.  Rather than a word denoting something taboo, we have a completely innocent and uncontroversial expression (here, denoting a manual process of any kind, and later the fructification of agriculture), which, by historical accident, eventually became associated in particular  with a proscribed referent.    After the reference of the word manure became, in some contexts, identifiable merely with (horresco referens) poo-poo,  the word became unusable in contexts like Jefferson’s.   In much the same manner, the blameless designation of the male of the genus Gallus, namely the cock (saving your presence): so soon as this became a metaphor for the membrum virilis, it ceased to be salonfähig (at least in sensitive America) and was replaced by the improbable deverbal term   rooster. 
     Note that, in this last case, the sense of taboo was related purely to the word itself in its new application, rather than to anything specially concerning the he-hen (that proverbial rooftop alarm-clock), who is not  inherently  particularly phallic.   Other zoological comparisons suggest themselves at least as prominently:  the rhino comes prominently (upstandingly) to mind, a fact not lost upon the aphrodisiac-seeking Asians who are largely responsible for the slaughter of rhinos and elephants.
To see what’s going on,  consider the Engish word face.  It was borrowed from the French word of the same spelling, and continues to serve us unobtrusively in that capacity down to the present day.   And yet, as a term of human anatomy, it has quite dropped out of modern French, yielding to the neologism visage.  What is going on?   Is there something obscene about the human face?
Not at all.  What happened is, in French and not in English, the word face fell into bad company, specifically in the metaphor (much savored by the misnamed Enlightenment) la face du grand turc -- meaning, the buttocks.  That was enough to doom the innocent original.

In essence, this whole process isn’t even especially semantic, and tells you less about the linguistically skittish society that gave rise to it, than do such truly meaning-based evolutions  such as the words (in Europe and in America) for someone who is dumb as dirt.  Look up the etymology of cretin (from Christian-- and no, this was not a Dawkinsian-Hitchensian slur against the smarts of evangelicals, it was meant as a gentle euphemism), and the whole train of words whose origin was euphemistic (imbecile, idiot, moron, …) which yet can no longer even be used in polite society, in their original objective sense (though they survive as loose insults for bosses and bad drivers).   The process that affected French face or English manure  rather involves, neither euphemism nor dysphemism at its core, but something which we might dub infection:   a perfectly innocent word with an innocent meaning, by happenstance acquires a new association (perhaps in a single day, as when some wag coined the phrase about the big Turk’s bottom, which went viral), which dooms it.  In an extreme case, the infection may contain no semantic component whatsoever, but be strictly accidental and phonetic.   Thus, an old word for ‘stingy’, niggardly, which has no ethnic reference whatsoever, in contemporary jittery America has become taboo’d, owing to its merely phonetic resemblance to an unrelated word which I dare not even name.  (Lexical change in taboo-ridden tribal societies provide thousands of examples of such things.)   Or, to take an example  entirely removed from any semantic taint at any point:   reflexes of the Latin hodie ‘today’, which survives in Spanish hoy and Italian oggi, in phonetically slipshod French became so debased that it had to be replaced by a circumlocution, in which the original etymon survives almost imperceptibly:  (au jour d’)aujourd’hui.   Or again, the reflexes of Latin apis ‘bee’ became so worn-down and homophonous in the daughter languages, that the originally diminutive apiculus  had to plug the gap:   Spanish abeja, French abeille.

[** Footnote:  Example of concretum pro abstracto:  Originally, both bureau and toilette referred (in French) to a piece of cloth.  Their separate, contingent evolutions  then led to abstract senses, ‘bureaucratic organization’ and ‘mode of dressing for the day’, respectively.]


For a languages-in-contact look at twee euphemisms for “Number 1” in French and German (aller au pipi-room; die Pipi-Pause), try this:

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