Archives For Roman Empire

Dangerous Slang

July 2, 2013 — 15 Comments

toilet 2When we moved to Alabama, my wife innocently offended some of her young students by using a slang word that in our family simply meant “stuff,” but apparently is used elsewhere for more vulgar purposes.

In a reference to something such as things being in the way, she said the word “crap.” Obviously she was definitely not using it in the Thomas Crapper sense. But some of the Southern kids had never heard it applied in an innocent way, so they naturally assumed she was using it in a crasser sense.

She wasn’t. I grew up with the word meaning “junk, stuff or clutter” with the connotation that they were unwelcome, and “in the way.” My sainted mother—from whose lips I do not ever once recall hearing a vulgar word pass—used the word “crap” often.

And because the source of the word’s usage was so pure and unadulterated (my mom), I mistakenly assumed I fully understood the word’s meaning.

Still, old habits are hard to change, and I find myself occasionally using that very word. And, I must confess, I sometimes even use it as a minor expression of irritation. For example, I just used it in the subject line of an email I sent to some fellow students of ancient Roman history. “Crap, I Just Missed This” was the exact phrase, and the body of the message consisted only of a link to a fascinating conference held in Rome just a few days before I learned about it.

The link was to this site. . . and if you don’t have the time or inclination to check it out, allow me to share the fascinating subject it addressed:

It was sponsored by the Royal Netherlands Institute in Rome, quite a prestigious organization. No fewer than seven scholars who have been excavating Rome’s ancient latrines were slated to speak—I’m eager to learn whether or not their presentations will be published for the benefit of those of us unable to attend.* They generously offered “free seating” to members of the public desiring to attend the historic programme.**

C.S. Lewis apparently respected the Roman Empire enough to take the Roman name of an ancient Italian city for the name of fabled “Narnia.” While I’ve yet to find any references in Lewis’ corpus to Roman plumbing, I found this appraisal of a History of Rome which he noted in his diary (16 March 1924). During an extended country walk with two friends, he dined at an inn and browsed through its public library.

After some time we went on to Stanton Harcourt where we were to lunch. Before we reached it the sun suddenly disappeared and the sky got white and a cold wind sprang up. In the inn parlour we consumed large quantities of bread and cheese and draft cider. Harwood found a delightful book here—a History of Rome “related in conversations by a father to his children with instructive comments”. The children made such comments as “How pleasing is filial piety, Papa!” and “My dear Sir, surely you have been too indulgent in describing the vices of Honorius as weakness.”

One wonders what sort of refined comments the children would have made about the recent conference. Perhaps something like, “Most honored patriarch, it is enlightening to learn just how elaborate was the attention the Romans devoted to the facilities dedicated to their private bodily functions.”

Well, enough about such matters. We have terribly digressed in a post originally intended to serve as a warning about the dangers of using slang. I guess I am just so disappointed about missing the conference that I needed to vent that here.


* One wonders how they were able to adequately address this complex subject in a one-day seminar.

toilet 1** The invitation does not expressly say whether it would consist of individual seats, or in a bench design, similar to that pictured below, from the workshop’s brochure. Speaking of pictures, the one at the top of the column, also from the promotional publication, is a fresco from the ceiling of a toilet on the Palatine. (And we think our bathrooms are fancy!)

During the early 1990s I was stationed at RAF Greenham Common and RAF Alconbury in the United Kingdom. Our family loved our three brief years in that inspiring land. One of the quaint things I recall was the relatively frequent question I was asked when meeting someone new. They would inquire as to “how things were going in the colonies.” It was actually a pleasant ice-breaker, and never said maliciously.

The comment offered no cause for offense. It’s been too long since the United States was a British colony for it to be more than a historical comment. The heated issues that once led to bloodshed have become historical trivia. There are, of course, many “younger” nations in our world that are still struggling to discover their post-colonial identities. This has been notoriously difficult where occidental powers established arbitrary boundaries that failed to recognize ethnic, religious or cultural considerations.

So, why is today’s post pondering the concept of colonialism? It just so happens that today is the anniversary of the imposition of the Stamp Act (tax) on her colonies by the British. It became law in 1765, a full decade before the War of Independence, but it was one of the alienating actions that laid the foundation for the upcoming rebellion.

Apparently, our paternalistic government in Europe regarded North America as a sort of bank from which they could make continuous withdrawals without ever repaying the funds. (“No taxation without representation” was a common battle cry.) The Stamp Act directly taxed all commercially published colonial materials, including newspapers and pamphlets. The Stamp Act would have been burdensome enough by itself, but the colonies were still reeling from three other onerous taxes that had recently been levied:

Sugar Act (1764)

…which covered textiles, wines, and coffee, in addition to sugar.

Currency Act (1764)

…which undermined colonial mercantilism and freedom.

Quartering Act (1765)

…which transformed every American home into a free bed & breakfast for British soldiers.

You get the idea. Georgia, Pennsylvania, Maryland and their like were merely colonies, so why should their concerns be factored into the equation? Extremely shortsighted. Not to mention, quite selfish.

C.S. Lewis addressed this subject in his major historical work.

The best European minds were ashamed of Europe’s exploits in America. Montaigne passionately asks why so noble a discovery could not have fallen to the Ancients who might have spread civility where we have spread only corruption. (English Literature in the Sixteenth Century).

We recognize that Montaigne’s notion is just a tad idealistic. If the Romans had colonized the Americas, for example, the indigenous people would hardly have been treated any differently. And the introduction of gladiatorial arenas would have presented an arguable civic improvement.

Still, Lewis’ point is completely valid. Whenever humans conquer or “colonize” their fellows, the colonies always get the proverbial “short end of the stick.” Thus, we recognize that it’s tough being a colony.

So, where does that leave us? Historically informed, perhaps we can make better decisions in the future. Weaker nations and peoples should never be exploited. It’s not just a matter of justice. Ethics aside, history teaches that sowing seeds of alienation and discontent invariably reap an unwelcome harvest.

One word of hope that we see in this historical snippet is that despite a combative history, lands (and people) can lay aside their animosity and become sincere allies. Which brings me back to the place where I began this column . . . living in an era when these nations that fought not one, but two wars, are steadfast friends.