One of them

[20.08.14. This post was extracted from an entry I originally wrote on the 24th of September 2009. Richard Hogg was one of the professors in the English Department at Manchester when I was doing my PhD there.]

Or one of us?

Language Log has picked up on Richard Hogg’s untimely death and has a link to his obit. in The Guardian. I note

One class project involved recording voice samples and playing them to unsuspecting outsiders, who were asked to assess the speaker’s person­ality.

I played a part in that once. One of the students in Richard’s class asked me to read a fairy tale which she then played to some factory workers somewhere in Manchester, who, without being able to see me, got my details utterly wrong. I ended up being a bit older than I was at the time; a lot richer; and politically so not me that I’d have to become a totally different person to fit the listeners’ ideas about who I was.

While I’m over on Language Log, I see there’s also a story called Monks and civilians. While I would typically use the word “civilian” to mean “someone who is not in the military”, I know that it has popped up in The Sopranos to mean something like “someone who is not involved in organised crime”; and I think it also occurred in one of the Godfather films where it meant the same. I’d assume that David Chase or whoever wrote that episode probably got it from The Godfather. In other words, it’s easy to see how the sense can go from the particular (“non-military”) to the general (“not a member of our group”).

Actually, I remember the dreadful Liz Hurley (yeah, I know a lot of you will be saying, “Who?”) used the word to mean “someone who wasn’t in show biz. or modelling” years back. In other words, this isn’t a new phenomenon.

Probably the word “civilian” in the stories about Burma is being used to contrast the people who are neither monks nor in the military. From the perspective of two defined groups, these people would be civilians in both the more recent sense of the word and the standard one.


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