September 24, 2007

Monks and civilians

An odd (to me) use of the word civilian has been widespread in the news coverage of the recent demonstrations in Myanmar. Thus "Anti-government protest in Rangoon", BBC, 9/24/2007

Many thousands of monks and civilians are now marching through the streets of Rangoon in what appears to be the biggest demonstration yet.

And "Myanmar Protesters Estimated at 100,000", ABC News, 0/24/2007

Buddhist monks, accompanied by civilians, march on a street in a protest against the military government in Yangon, Myanmar, Sunday, Sept. 23, 2007.

And "'100,000 join Saffron Revolution' in Burma", Times Online, 9/24/2007:

Onlookers cheered and shouted support as between 10,000 and 20,000 monks in maroon robes with saffron sashes marched on routes through Rangoon, the country's largest city.
Civilians joining the marches swelled the number of demonstrators to as many as 100,000, according to some estimates.

And also "Thousands Join Monks in Myanmar Protests", NYT, 9/24/2007:

In the country’s largest city, Yangon, the Buddhist monks who have led the protests for the past week were outnumbered by civilians, including prominent political dissidents and well-known cultural figures.

None of these passages requires the interpretation that monks and civilians are disjoint classes, but that seems to me to be the natural reading. In contrast, the Economist asked "As more monks and laymen join protests in Myanmar, what will the junta do?", using the term that I would have thought more appropriate for non-monks. Perhaps the other sources have trouble with the -men part of laymen?

Anyhow, after my experience with bagatelle, I wondered whether I'd been missing something else about the English language, all these years. The answer turns out to be "yes", as it usually is when I turn to the OED. But what I've been missing was not an extended use of civilian to mean "a person not in religious orders" (which is obvious enough, and probably not new, though I'm still surprised to see it used so widely in the press). No, it turns out that there are three other things about civilian that I didn't know.

The OED starts its entry with two curious senses previously unknown to me:

1. One who makes or has made the Civil Law (chiefly as distinguished originally from the Canon Law, and later from the Common Law) the object of his study: a practitioner, doctor, professor, or student of Civil Law, a writer or authority on the Civil Law.
2. Theol. ‘One who, despising the righteousness of Christ, did yet follow after a certain civil righteousness, a justitia civilis of his own’ (Trench).

(I suppose that sense 2. might be somehow relevant to the Myanmar protests, except that I don't imagine that either the Buddhist monks or the Buddhist non-monks have any particular opinion of the righteousness of Christ.) Then comes the meaning that I know, though oddly restricted in sex:

3. A non-military man or official.

This is supplied with a suprising literal or original meaning, also new to me:

a. orig. (More fully Indian Civilian): One of the covenanted European servants of the East India Company, not in military employ. Now, a member of the Indian Civil Service of the Crown.

[I presume that the word "now" in this passage is a candidate for editing in some future version...]

And then finally the normal contemporary use:

b. generally (esp. in military parlance): One who does not professionally belong to the Army or the Navy; a non-military person.

But there's nothing there about non-monks, though the analogy is obvious enough.

[Update -- Laura Pettelle writes:

I have noticed this usage for years, while I was an undergraduate student in theology and later while I was in seminary, where everyone is clearly familiar with the word "laymen."

My intuition, which may be completely incorrect, is that the use of "civilians" in theological circles is twofold. First, these days it seems like you hear "laymen" a lot more in reference to scientific laymen than theological laymen and people's minds seem to jump to that meaning. Second, with the declericalization of theology, there are plenty of laymen who are important theologians, and sometimes "lay" vs. "clergy" doesn't convey the right distinction; I heard "civilian" a lot in that context, when the "in group" wasn't ministers but theological professionals (academic, ministerial, and otherwise) and the "out group" referred to as civilians was everybody else.

One other thing that might matter is that "lay" or "laymen" has been used as an insult and as a demarcator in some particularly ugly church governance battles (in a variety of denominations) and in some settings I think people avoid it because (consciously or unconsciously) they don't want to reference those very negative uses.

I don't think the "men" in laymen is really the problem, since layfolk, lay people, and laity are all perfectly acceptable and common constructions.

I always love to see a language quirk I've wondered about get a shoutout (and explanation!) on LLog. It's nice when something you've wondered about anyway appears before your very eyes on your morning RSS feed.

I've heard and seen civilians used (sometimes jokingly) to mean "outsiders" in a number of non-military situations. But this is always from the perspective of insiders looking out -- which the reporters writing about the Myanmar protests surely are not.]

[David Eddyshaw writes:

I vaguely recall reading that the Roman Christian use of 'paganus', literally 'rustic' of course, was borrowed from Roman military jargon, in which it meant 'civilian'. My trusty Classical Latin dictionary (Lewis) gives 'civilian' as a meaning of 'paganus', in Juvenal and Tacitus.

'Heathen' is a calque of 'paganus' IIRC too.

I don't think Buddhists are quite so keen on describing their community with military metaphors though ...

It never occurred to me that "pagan" meant "hick", but of course it obviously did, etymologically speaking anyhow. And it's interesting that it got that way due to the Christians adopting the military term for outsiders.]

[Geraint Jennings writes:

In the monks v civilians reporting context, the image that was conveyed to me was of monks in robes and others in civvies (i.e. civilian dress). For me it was a visual thing implying contrast in costume - uniform v non-uniform.

Back (way back) in the days when I was at school, being out of uniform for visits, trips etc was being "in civvies", so that perhaps influences my reaction.

Yes, the monks' robes (as well as their orderly ranks in marching) are obviously part of the analogy. ]

[Update 9/25/2007 -- Barbara Zimmer observes that "By today (Sept 25) the phrase has morphed into "monks and supporters", "monks and other protesters", "monks and many others", etc in print and on the radio..... " ]

Posted by Mark Liberman at September 24, 2007 09:25 AM