Sunday, December 13, 2015

Phrase of the Day: “skimmity ride”

I am currently taking-in an audiobook of Thomas Hardy’s novel The Mayor of Casterbridge (18), expertly read by Mr. Simon Vance, whose mastery of various voices, and of the island dialects  (both Saxon and Scots)  adds much to the performance.

At one point in this densely plotted book, we learn of plans by the local lumpen, to subject a certain rather flighty/haughty  dame of the town (and her hardworking but enveigled husband) to what they call a “skimmity ride”. That turns out to be Dorset dialect (which, indeed, figures even as a plot-element in the book, when the ingénue professes herself ‘leery’ in the local sense, and is rated by her stepfather, who demands that she restrict herself to Hochenglisch) for this:

skimmington: one publicly impersonating and ridiculing a henpecked or cuckolded husband or his shrewish or unfaithful wife
-- Merriam-Webster

It is reminiscent of, but vastly milder than, the early American custom of tarring and feathering, and riding out of town on a rail (literary classics depicting this:  Huckleberry Finn; and Hawthorne’s haunting “My Kinsman, Major Molineux”)  since, here, the miscreants  are represented only in effigy.   Moreover, the practice enjoyed here no legal sanction, though the feckless local constables shrink from halting the procession.

As for what-all is involved in a skimmington, and the related charivari, you may top up the cup of your Wissbegierde  here:

In the matter of public shaming, devotees of literature (or high-school grads who had the book assigned) will recall Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter.  But that stigma was imposed top-down; whereas (as Hardy makes clear) the skimmity-ride in Casterbridge  was instigated by a slyboots, and implemented by the dregs.

So much might put us in mind of a current practice, distantly related to the moral(istic) Tyranny of the Village:  anonymous online mobbing
-- public shaming by complete strangers -- capriciously, via the Twittering carrion-birds of the Erinyes.  Thus ratifying the paradoxical formulation of a “global village”.

Exercise for the student:  To develop this idea further, explore the traditional distinction between shame cultures and guilt cultures.  The latter are specifically Judeo-Christian, and are generally reckoned an advance by those familiar with both.  Our own society is devolving toward that earlier standard:  not a sense of guilt, but of embarrassment;  not at having done wrong, but having offended anyone.

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