What Words Say (3)
‘Common’ – from the Latin root meaning ‘together with’ and ‘binding by obligation’: see: An Etymological Dictionary of the English Language by Walter W. Skeat
One working person says to another working person ‘huh, she’s common’. How is it that this word ’common’ is used in this instance as a term of disparagement? And why is this so when its root meaning is rested in ‘togetherness’ and in ‘binding obligation’. The term ‘common’ to many, possibly most, people’s ears means something pretty low down the pecking order of value. How might this relegation into low value and this ‘coming together’ – ‘binding by obligation’ reconcile one to the other? How did such a diversion of the word ‘common’ into such channels of other meaning happen?
The answer, like the answer to the queries I made about the words ‘rule’ and ‘office’, refers back to questions of authority and command, as well as to queries about social class and the dominion of one set of persons over another.
Britain, particularly England, is riddled with social class distinctions and their resultant exclusions and inclusions into and out of ‘society’ or ‘the club’, or ‘the restaurant’ or the ‘art form’ or the ‘recreational activity’ or the ‘way on does one’s gambling’ and so on.
This class system is a legacy, but not a leftover, since it is very much alive and busy sorting us here into ‘formulated phrases’ and ‘fixing us on that pin’ to which we are thought to and accustomed to being thought to belong. But how is ‘common’ bound up with all this?
Well, even today, in more polite villages and their folk who live in them the word ‘common’ is alive in an otherwise defunct general meaning for the English language. The ‘common’ is the venue at which local cricket matches are played; the place where picnics are eaten and children’s playgrounds are found. This is because the ‘common’ is the title of a piece of ground, normally grass lawn, possibly with a few trees and bushes at its outer boundaries, on which the people of the village enjoy leisure and recreational activities. The name is held in aspic in certain London and other place names: ‘Clapham Common’ ‘Wimbledon Common’ and such.
‘Common’ in this usage of the word as meaning a piece of ground was in the times of Old England that piece of ground, in the days of Lords and Serfs and of Feudal ties between servant Serfs and Ruling Masters, their Lords, on which low caste working villagers we able lawfully to graze their few animals and maybe raise a crop. The ‘common’ as a piece of ground was accessible to all these low caste villagers; and it was a concession of the law held in place by custom and tradition, and with its origins deep in the early days of England first coming together as an integrated and discrete nation.
So today we might explain this usage of the word ‘common’ by saying to our children that; ‘The common people were allowed to make use of the common ground.’ And this is how commoners, or ‘common’ people, low status people, got that appellation ‘common’ in the first place; they were commoners allowed to use a piece of land denominated ‘the common’.
Interestingly enough most commons, pieces of land, have disappeared from the face of Britain. Since the first stirrings of The Industrial Revolution erupting out of the massively increased opportunities for commerce and wealth creation which the ‘discovery’ of the ‘New World’ brought about (another interesting set of terms with ‘connotations to explore) in Europe; Britain became first off from the gate in providing a spate of very useful inventions, mechanical and administrative, which helped immensely to ‘fire-up’ the locomotives and the manufacturing factories, those ‘dark Satanic mills’ which were soon to devour the British landscape and the low caste working ‘commoners’ who dwelt therein.
Land at that time came more and more to be at a premium – for agriculture; because in order for a securely based Industrial Revolution to occur it looks historically-speaking like an Agrarian Revolution had to occur first. The way forward in this Agrarian Revolution at the time seemed to show itself in the shape of items like Jethro Tull’s inventions of The Horse Hoe and of his ‘Seed Drill’, along with many other technological inventions made by many other contributions.
These inventions stimulated an idea for what was called ‘enclosure’. Indeed there was a series of ‘Enclosure Acts’ (see Inclosure Act 1773) passed in the British parliament in the eighteenth century (in the main) and this series of acts made it lawful for the Landlords and Landowners, those guys who were mostly the descendants of the Feudal Lords who were the controllers of their Serfs; lawful for them to close down common lands and to expel the ‘commoners’ and to land grab and thus overthrow settled longstanding rights in law and tradition and custom in the name of big bucks.
‘Enclosure’ was designed to make arable and pasture fields much bigger and under a single crop or purpose, and Masters. ‘Commoners’ lost their grazing rights, their rights to congregate together on their ‘commons’ and so on – and all at the whim of a government comprised of the same guys who most benefitted from the fruits of enclosure. The upper crust
The new agrarian inventions and methods asked for large and homogenous farming in large land areas – so these land areas were grabbed by the wealthy and influential who were seeking to be more wealthy and more influential. Thus the ‘commoners’ were dispossessed of their heritage – at a stroke – and by those appointed to be their governors and protectors. This was how these low caste agriculturally-based workers became in truth even more so ‘commoners’ – the shiftless, landless, uprooted, and cast off the land.
In the course of the next 50 or 80 years these ‘lost sheep, all gone astray’ ended up in the burgeoning towns and cities of Britain where a great vacuum requiring factory labourers was irresistibly drawing them in to work there. They had no other place to go to. They became the Lumpenproletariat of Marx, the peoples of The City of Dreadful Night. These were the ‘common’ people, the Serfs, the items who were reckoned as ‘hands’ and ‘bodies’ by their employers and by their masters.
And that, in somewhat crude but essentially accurate form, is why working persons are called disparagingly ‘common’.
And what has this all to do with ‘Awakening The Christian Inside’? Well, the story, which is utterly the truth and not much biased as a history of what happened, points up several items to bear in mind, and which should help you see that you must not be fooled into thinking; ‘This is the 21st century and we are all much more civilised now. Things like this can no longer happen.’ Error. Major, major error.
What can safely be drawn out of this history is that:
- ‘Common’ in its origins had no stigma of detraction about its meaning
2.‘Common’ as in ‘in-common’ is written into the King James Authorised version of the Bible as being the mode of life opted for by Jesus Christ’s first disciples. The Book of The Acts of the Apostles tells us: ‘And all that believed were together, and had all things common’. Acts 2.44.
- The governors of all ages will act so as to prefer themselves over their social ‘inferiors’ whom they govern. It is happening to you today, believe it.
- That such acts before God as the ‘enclosure’ of common lands are in his eyes abominable. The perpetrators of these acts nonetheless happily, greedily, used the power of national statute law so as to forward their self-interests and so they enclosed the commons
- Ordinary people are ever to be dispossessed and made without livelihood in the name of ‘progress’ or of ‘gain’; but this will be said by the governors to be an ‘unavoidable’ thing – like ‘An act of God’ (irony)
- ‘Common’ in its older sense was a noble concept of kindness and consideration for others; of keeping one’s word, and in the course of history it has been trampled by the governors of the ordinary person.
- ‘Common’ nowadays is a put-down when it is used of a person. One should remember always its first and purer use and derivation.
Finally, God’s Gospel, or Good News, again and again is emphasised in the New Testament throughout to be Good News especially to the poor, the dispossessed, the hungry, the lost, the suffering, the low and the weak. Jesus Christ himself speak to us saying: ‘It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the Kingdom of Heaven’
Jesus Christ himself tells us the story of Dives and Lazarus, who are the rich man and the poor man. Most importantly, he tells us that as ‘no respecters of persons’ (see no.8 in this series) we ought to act in charity unconditionally so that we are able to read with gratitude but not with any gloating:
‘I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
“Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
“The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
The original article is located at our anomalist design blog: http://blog.anomalistdesign.com/what-words-say-3/