Western Europe's social history — in one word

Anthony M. Ludovici

The South African Observer 8.12, 1963, pp. 13–14

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It cannot have escaped the notice of the readers of this journal that, in the English language, there lie in many words the embalmed memory of men and events recalling whole chapters of history and, in some cases, even of centuries of national development. Sometimes the mere surname of a well-known personage enriches the language. Occasionally it is merely the designation of a class or sect.
        We have, for instance, Simon Magus, whose name perpetuates the notion of infamous traffic in sacred things; Wellington who, to the illiterate, recalls only a large boot; Gladstone who, to the same sort of people, suggests a travelling bag. Ned Lud, who in 1799 inaugurated the revolt against machinery will live for ever in histories of the Luddite risings. There are also Burke, the Scottish murderer, hanged in 1829; Boycott, the Irish Captain of Mayo, ostracized by his neighbours in 1880; Dr. T. Bowdler who expurgated Shakespeare; E. Clerihew (Bentley) who invented a sort of lyrical caricature, and Hildebrand who stood for the unbending assertion of Church Power. The list is endless.
        But, except for Simon and Burke, of none of these men can their legacy be said to be connected with shame; unless perhaps false shame may be imputed to Bowdler and the shame of deplorable nonsense imputed to those who gave us Shavianism and Benthamism.
        There are however some men whose names are memorials of attributes distinctly unpopular. The word "Sadism", for instance, perpetuates the memory of an unsavoury pervert; whilst "Martinet" suggests the bugbear of all those, whether soldiers, naval ratings, Teddy Boys or women, who detest discipline. Guillotine likewise inspires some horror for Dr. Guillotin; but unjustly, because the apparatus which decimated the French aristocracy at the time of the French Revolution, was not really invented by him.

Notable feature

        Now, the notable feature about all the words I have quoted is that they openly reveal a certain identity. The most ignorant Frenchman or Englishman can, by consulting a dictionary, discover who the person was to whom we owe the word that perpetuates his name.
        This, however, is not true of every such word "Puritan", for example, tells you more about a period, a sect, a moral character and an attitude than about any individual man. And the same applies to "Chartist" and "Covenanter". In the case of the particular word I have in mind, even a dictionary does not reveal the complete identity, aim and merits (except inferentially) of those whose way of life, influence and institutional legacies it summarizes as it were, like a history book in tabloid form. Indeed, as a compendious abstract of centuries of European history, social development and transition, it is as a word quite unique.
        For, if we could imagine such a calamity as the total destruction of all our histories and historical records and documents, it would be possible by merely studying the origin and the first and last connotation of this word, to draw an accurate sketch of centuries of European social history, and to reconstruct with exactitude the stages by which we have reached our present political plight and institutions.
        Indeed, in view of the fact that all history has been written by partisans, whether of one political school or another; and bearing in mind that there can be no such thing as a Science of History, but merely a more or less conscientious attempt by individual historians to interpret the records as fairly as they can, according to their tastes and prejudices, the lessons imbedded in this one word are more likely to yield a true picture of the past than if the whole of the works of English, French, German and Italian historians could be completely absorbed and digested.
        And what is this comprehensive term, so briefly enshrining centuries of our social history, simultaneously hinting at the course of our political evolution, describing the behaviour of generations of a certain class in the community, and finally suggesting the fatal errors of those alleged "thinkers" who responded to the behaviour in question?

The word 'danger'

        The reader will hardly believe it when I tell him that whenever and wherever he receives the message of a red light, of the sign "Halt!" and of any caution warning him to advance no further, not to touch or handle a particular object, or not to satisfy his curiosity by pushing at a closed door; whenever and wherever in fact he is apprised of imminent peril if he ventures any further, and he reads on a signboard a single word conveying this counsel, the word in question is the one I have in mind. For it is the disyllable DANGER, the symbol perpetuating not merely countless famous and preponderatingly in famous names, but also an epitome of centuries of European history, of which I am thinking.
        In no word in any other language than French or English can we find such a comprehensive précis of bygone ages. A student needs only to know its etymology in order at once to be able to give a reliable account of European misrule and its deplorable consequences. Without needing to resort to one dusty and crumbling document of the past, he will hold in his hand all the clues to the origin of Liberalism together with its mentally defective offspring, Democracy, Socialism, Communism, Feminism and Anarchy. He will also be in possession of a synopsis of all the political imbecilities of your Regicides, Revolutionists, Republicans and Radicals, with their various stooges from John Ball, Lilburne, Hartlib, Walwyn and Winstanley, to Locke, Voltaire, Rousseau, Godwin, Bentham, J. S. Mill, Bernard Shaw, Marx, Lenin et hoc genus omne.
        For, in the etymology of the one word DANGER, a political tragedy of prodigious consequence lies concealed, although even the most erudite philologists rarely draw the obvious inferences from it.

Developed gradually

        It is a word whose modern sinister meaning developed gradually out of the innocent old French word "dangier", signifying dominion, authority power — the power of a lord or master (dominium).
        Originally, all it implied was lordship. To be in anyone's "danger" meant simply to be under his jurisdiction, authority or control. Chaucer in the 14th century still used the word in this sense. Lydgate, his junior by some 30 years, did likewise. In the 42nd stanza of his "A Sayenge of the Nyghtyngale", he speaks of Christ's bearing His Cross to Calvary to make us strong against the "dangier" (power) of non-Christian forces. Shakespeare, in

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THE MERCHANT OF VENICE, makes Portia ask Antonio whether he stands in Shylock's danger or not — meaning Shylock's power (Act IV, Sc. I). And THE NEW ENGLISH DICTIONARY quotes a passage from Bishop Ridley's works (1556) to illustrate how the word was still being used in the 16th century — that is to say, merely as a synonym for authority or control. "They put themselves", wrote the Bishop, "in the danger of King Ahab saying, 'Behold we have heard that the kings of the house of Israel are pitiful and merciful'."
        Do we need much imagination, much arduous guessing, to discover how a word originally meaning no more than authority, control, jurisdiction, could ultimately have so consistently and permanently earned the sinister connotation of jeopardy, fatal hazard, mortal peril, as to serve even the most illiterate of two great nations — France and England — as a universal premonition of disaster, if not of death?
        What could have happened to turn this innocent word into a terrifying token of threatening ruin? What must generations of powerful men have consistently done in order insensibly to make the populations of two such countries as France and England convert a word connoting merely authority, control and power, into a signal of alarm and of threatening Nemesis?

Centuries of disreputable conduct

        In view of the ignorance of psychology and history among the masses, no one can be surprised that the centuries of disreputable conduct on the part of ruling men, which culminated in the transformation of "dangier" into DANGER, should have been interpreted by the common people of both France and England as a conclusive proof of the worthlessness of patriarchal control and authority — in fact, of Aristocracy. For the masses are not composed of thinkers, and such hasty, half-baked and makeshift substitutes for the shameful misrule of men who had no business to be masters at all — such substitutes as Liberalism, Democracy and Universal Suffrage — must seem to an oppressed and ill-used populace the very essence of wisdom and political sanity.
        This, however, does not excuse the so-called "thinkers" from John Ball to Bernard Shaw, whom I have enumerated above, for having endorsed the panic stricken innovations seized upon by an outraged mob who saw only DANGER in dangier. It does not excuse them for having failed to distinguish the sins of the magisterial class from the institution of Magistracy itself, and for having condemned the principle of the rule of the best before making sure that the sins of misrule had indeed been committed by the "Best".
        They would have needed to look only so far as Northern Italy, or back to ancient Egypt, in order to have learnt that dangier by no means logically or necessarily implied DANGER. And if they blindly acquiesced in the mob's hasty and makeshift substitutes for patriarchal rulership, they confessed themselves as incompetent as the crowd they pretended to lead.
        It may now be far too late to hope to purge DANGER of the dread it insures. But may we nevertheless not look forward to the day when it may be, if not superseded at least paralleled, at all railway crossings, electrical installations, munition factories, and on all unsafe beaches and rocky shores, by the one word LIBERALISM or DEMOCRACY? — It may be that no such supersession is likely to occur for many years; but that there are signs of such a change few perspicacious observers could deny.

Anarchy spreading fast

        Anarchy, with all its crimes and perils is fast spreading over England and France. The pursuit of so-called "Freedom" has turned out to be merely the establishment of universal Licence; and as the Western World long ago abandoned the belief in the possibility of wise rulers, a class of wise leaders has ceased to be bred.
        Before the day of ultimate reckoning arrives, however, it may not be wholly bootless for those unfamiliar with the social history of England and France, to ponder on the centuries of largely inarticulate suffering that must have elapsed before a harmless notion like that suggested by the word "Dangier" could, through the conduct of cads, become a warning of imminent catastrophe. Must we wait for such a change to overtake the words Liberalism and Democracy?