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Keyword: Civil (Society)

In Williams’ original wordlist for Keywords, civilization is considered in detail and civilized is referred to briefly in the same entry. A modern edition would have little to add to that entry, since both terms seem to appear in modern use with a largely historical emphasis. By contrast, civil, which Williams also mentions, has been used in an increasing number of contexts that relate to current social debates and changes. As a result, it is now civil that has the range of related and shifting meanings.

According to OED, civil is first attested in 14c. The earliest quotations are listed for two senses, found in different sections of the entry. The first is the collocation batayle ciuile at sense 3a, which lists a series of word-forms and gives as definition ‘civil war, strife, troubles, etc., such as occur among fellow-citizens or within the limits of one community’. The second is much further on in the entry, and is an attestation for civil as a noun, with the definition ‘= CIVILIAN 1; civil law personified. Obs.’ Both senses are clearly related to senses also to be found in Latin, given at the beginning of the entry:

a. F. civil ad. L. cīvīl-is of or pertaining to citizens (f. cīvis citizen), their private rights, etc., hence relating to the body of citizens or commonwealth, political, public; also, pertaining to the citizen as distinct from the soldier; and citizen-like, polite, courteous, urbane. The sense-development, being already effected in L., has received only slight extension in Fr. and Eng.

The one English sense that is notably missing from the Latin senses listed in the etymology section is the non-religious sense (OED sense 15a ‘Distinguished from ecclesiastical: non-ecclesiastical; and, with extended application, non-religious, non-sacred, secular’). However, the OED quotations suggest that this sense had also begun to occur in post-classical Latin.

In modern English, civil most commonly occurs in fixed collocations. In the Oxford Dictionary of English (2005), which draws from the BNC corpus, the collocations listed as separate lemmas are:

civil commotion, civil defence, civil disobedience, civil engineer, civil law, civil liberty, civil list, civil marriage, civil rights, civil service, civil union, civil war, civil wrong

Historically, civil has also collocated with a particular set of nouns. The OED civil entry lists additional lemmas such as civil magistrate (‘the temporal authority as distinguished from the ecclesiastical’) and civil day (both ‘legally recognised for the purposes of ordinary life and social organisation’). However, not all of the ODE lemmas above are listed (either in the main entry or as separate entries). Notably, for example, civil liberty/-ies and civil wrong (ODE: ‘Law, an infringement of a person’s rights, especially a tort’) are missing. Interestingly, the three quotations under OED sense 5a ‘of or pertaining to the individual citizen’, attested earliest in 1788 and latest in 1841, all contain the phrase civil liberty; so although this expression is not identified as a lemma it clearly existed as a phrase. Presumably the expression becomes a recognisable, fixed collocation in 20c, and is widespread in the 1960s onwards, often in its plural form.

As the high number of collocations in ODE suggests, civil is (by far) most commonly used attributively (e.g. civil partnership) rather than predicatively (e.g. he was barely civil). Except in a few rare contexts, there is only one modern predicative use: the sense of ‘courteous and polite’ (as defined by ODE), to be found in expressions such as Try to be civil. Intuitively, this sense appears to be becoming old-fashioned, and it is listed last in synchronic dictionaries which order senses by frequency (e.g. Collins Cobuild Dictionary). Quotations supplied in the OED entry almost all show attributive use (only between 20 and 30 of the quotations, which attest a small number of senses, are predicative). A relatively high number of the other senses identified in OED survive in modern English, but are largely ‘fossilized’ in the fixed collocations discussed above.

Given this patterning, it is difficult to identify a single core sense for civil, or even two cores. Rather, senses can only be identified by examining context of use (to an even greater extent than seems usual with polysemous lexemes). Although the etymological sense, ‘of or pertaining to citizens, their private rights, etc.’, can be seen as the root of current senses, these senses have diverged significantly, and it seems unlikely that a clear connection with this sense would be made by all English speakers on the basis of some of the most frequent current uses (e.g. in civil engineer or civil partnership).

In the range of collocations in which civil is found, some interesting contrasts can be observed. The senses relating to citizens and citizenship can be divided into two almost opposite meanings: in one meaning, civil relates to the individual, for example in civil rights and perhaps civil action (in law). In another, it relates to the state, for example in civil service. In some collocations, it is difficult to distinguish which sense is relevant, and this may be the cause of much of the difficulty that the word creates. For example, is civil disobedience so called because it denotes actions of the individual or actions against the state?

In other collocations, civil is used for its opposition to other terms. OED separates these senses into branch II of the entry, noting that ‘since civil connotes what pertains to the citizen in his ordinary capacity, it is distinguished from various words expressing specific departments, and thus is often opposed to these as a negative term.’ The quotation listed under this definition explores this set of meanings further: “The word civil has about twelve different meanings; it is applied to all manner of objects which are perfectly disparate. As opposed to criminal, it means all law not criminal. As opposed to ecclesiastical it means all law not ecclesiastical; as opposed to military it means all law not military; and so on.” (1832 AUSTIN Jurispr. (1879) II. xliv. 780).

This form of meaning for civil determined by being a residue seems to hold for most of current collocational uses, and it is interesting to explore how these ‘negative’ senses interact with other semantically related words. For example, one sense of civil is roughly synonymous with secular (e.g. civil marriage, civil ceremony, civil partnership), but occurs in different contexts and collocations. Other senses might be compared with state or government (e.g. civil service), or (more tenuously) with personal or individual (e.g. civil rights). This variability within the meaning and emphasis of civil raises the question why civil has not been replaced with less ambiguous and more specialised terms, particularly in relatively recent formulations such as those relating to non-religious partnerships. It may be that the connotations of otherwise eligible words exclude them; for example secular partnership would perhaps be interpreted as directly anti-religious rather than non-religious, and an alternative such as legal partnership might appear ambiguous in that it might denote a law firm. It may therefore be that the range of shifting senses and uses of civil actively motivates use of the word because civil does not have a single clear meaning and is therefore less likely to be problematic in describing delicate aspects of interaction between individual and social.

Some historical uses of civil have been replaced by the term civic. This related word has also had various shifting senses, but in contemporary use tends to be used to mean ‘of or relating to a town or city’ (ODE), avoiding by this means much of the difficulty in describing social relations within towns or cities to which civil is prone.

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