Wednesday, January 26, 2005

Day Twenty: "Thee and thou, thine and mine."

Day Twenty.

I’ve always wanted to use the word “Antidisestablishmentarianism” in a text. Here it is.

It’s the longest word in the English Language. Or at least it was while I was growing up. It has twenty-five letters. They’ve probably invented a few more even longer words since then.

“Supercalerfragerlisticexpialidocious” doesn’t count because it doesn’t mean anything, whereas “Antidisestablishmentarianism” does.

Anyway, never trust anything that comes out of the Disney Corporation. It is bound to be tainted.

So far I have been cheating. Saying you want to use a word, and then spelling it out, is not actually using the word in context.

So let’s give it a try.

The word comes out of the English Civil War and the debate between the different sects: between those who believed that the Church should remain established as a part of the British State - the gentry and the followers of Cromwell - and some of the more radical sects, who believed in freedom of conscience, and the disestablishment of the Church from the State. The Quakers, the Ranters, the Levellers and the Diggers were all Disestablishmentarians, and their opponents on the other side were the Antidisestablishmentarians, whose philosophy could summed up as Antidisestablishmentarianism.

Is that good enough? It’s still a bit of a cheat, I must admit, since all it really amounts to is an explanation of the word.

It will have to do for the time being.

Actually, this isn’t as irrelevant as it sounds. Some of these debates still have resonance to this day.

We were talking about Jesus.

That description of him I gave you earlier, as the Son of Man, not the Son of God, who came to take away our sins, and who stood in opposition to the law and to the Ten Commandments, was actually developed during the English Civil War.

The Quakers and the Ranters and the Levellers and the Diggers were all antinomian dissenters, that is, they stood against the Established Church and the State.

“Antinomianism” means “against the law”.

They believed that Jesus had died to save us from our sins. Sometimes, therefore, according to some opinions, it was no longer possible to sin.

The Ranters took this line of reasoning so far that they felt free to drink and smoke and spend time with whores. They met in pubs, and, after a few pints and a few pipes they would, literally, be ranting.

Such was their reasoning, in fact, that after a while some of them even felt confident enough, finally, to dispense with the notion of God altogether.

Thus did atheism arise out of a form of Christian thinking.

The Quakers, who were also very radical, took a highly politicised view of things. They refused to bow or to call any man “Lord”. They refused to doff their caps. Men and women were all created in the image of God, they said. No man was superior to any other man. Sometimes they would enter the established churches during a sermon, and argue with the Priest. They wanted to abolish the Priesthood. They believed that men and women were created equal and that the words of a woman preacher had as much relevance as those of a man.

This was very far-out thinking indeed in the Sixteen-Forties.

In fact, I believe we can blame the Quakers for one of the seismic shifts in the English language.

At that time the “thee” and the “thou” were still in use.

“Thee” and “thou” were the familiar and singular; “you” was the polite and plural form.

You used “you” when addressing more than one person, when you didn’t know the person, or when the person was a social superior.

You used “thou” when addressing one person you were close to - like a member of your family, for instance - when speaking to animals or small children, or when the person was a social inferior.

It was conventional for a Lord to use the “thou” and for a peasant or a tradesman, or anyone of a lower status, to answer with the “you”.

The Quakers refused to accept the social implications of this and referred to everyone as “thou”: meaning that everyone was considered equal.

They called themselves “the Society of Friends”, and called everyone “friend”, much as, in later days, Communists and Socialists referred to each other as “comrade”.

This refusal to go along with the conventional forms of polite address caused much annoyance – not to say, outrage - amongst the gentry.

“Unless they are suppressed,” said one disgruntled supporter of antidisestablishmentarianism, “such as now introduce ‘thou’ and ‘thee’, will (if they can) expel ‘mine’ and ‘thine’, dissolving all property into confusion.”

Yes. That’s exactly what they meant.

Thus the words “thou”, “thee” and “thine” took on a radical, political, egalitarian edge, and the language was forced to shift to compensate. The people who used these words were seen as subversive and revolutionary. We stopped using them altogether.

Mighty, indeed, is the power of the word.

Unless, that is, it is twenty-five letters long, in which case it becomes almost impossible to use.


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