Civil is a keyword in much contemporary political ideological and legal debate, but it finds much of its semantic force in a series of oppositions: civil service is opposed to military service, civil engineer is opposed to mechanical or chemical engineer, civil union is opposed to religious union, civil law is opposed to canon or common law, and these oppositions do not readily lend themselves to description by a strong core sense. At the same time, much of the most important political developments in Western society can be tracked through the changing definitions of civil society.
It is derived from both French and Latin and comes into English in C14. The Latin root is civilis, of or pertaining to citizens from the noun civis, a citizen. Civilis has a range of senses, ranging from a citizen’s private rights to the body of citizens or commonwealth, and through this sense of body of citizens it develops the meanings that relate it to political and public. There is a strong distinction between the civilian and the soldier and there is a development that relates to behavior: citizen-like, polite, courteous, urbane. These diverse senses all come through into modern English, although there is an early and important development when civil is opposed to ecclesiastical in the medieval period, a development that is also registered in post-classical Latin.
While modern English continues to retain the sense of civil as “courteous and polite,” as in “He was barely civil,” most of the examples in the OED are for archaic or rare uses, and many more modern examples use civil not as equivalent to courteous but with the much more minimum sense of “not downright rude.” One might speculate that the very strong opposition between citizen and soldier that underpinned these senses has continuously weakened since the classical period to the point that it might be questioned whether many contemporary speakers of English even register the opposition to military in the term civil service. This undoubtedly has to do with the diminishing social role of the soldier since the Renaissance. But it may also be because of the importance of the phrase civil war, both the oldest and one of the most frequent uses of the word civil.
In modern English, civil most commonly occurs in fixed collocations such as: civil commotion, civil defense, civil disobedience, civil engineer, civil law, civil liberty, civil list, civil marriage, civil rights, civil service, civil union, civil war, and civil wrong. Given this patterning, it is difficult to identify a single core sense for civil. Rather, senses can only be identified by examining context of use (to an even greater extent than seems usual with polysemous words). Although the etymological sense, “of or relating to citizens” and their private rights, 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).
Civil has an important set of political meanings in the collocations civil liberties, civil rights, and civil society. It is perhaps unsurprising that two of the earliest examples that the OED gives for this phrase in both the singular and plural come from the early debates of the C17 political struggle known in Britain as the Civil War. John Milton in 1644 writes, “When complaints are freely heard, deeply peedily reform’d, then is the utmost bound of civill liberty attain’d, that wise men looke for” (Areopagitica). And four years earlier the plural, “As this plot hath been set on foot for the benefit of strangers, so it will be continued to the weakening of both the Kingdomes the overthrow of our Religion, and civill liberties, to the uttermost of their power” (1640).
From the earliest days of political theory in English, there had been an identification of civil with the political state, and one can understand these C17 uses as evoking a definition of the state that does not limit it to the monarch. A more radical redefinition comes from Hegel with his attention to those activities of the citizen that belong neither to the family nor the state but are the result of the interactions of individuals. Hegel calls these activities bürgerliche Gesellschaft, which may be translated as either civil society or bourgeois society. For Marx it is these activities, particularly the economic relations of society, which form the very base of society. Now the state becomes part of society’s superstructure and loses, at least for Marxists, its privileged position at the center of political theory and analysis.
The last quotation in the OED for this sense is taken from an article published by Foreign Policy in 2002: “Working with nonstate actors, such as NGOs, is central to communication with civil societies in other countries (and hence central to influencing their governments).” In fact this quotation uses a new sense of the phrase developed in the Soviet Bloc in the 1970s and 1980s to refer to associations that did not come under the direct control of the state. It was crucial in the struggles against the Eastern European dictatorships, particularly in Poland and Czechoslovakia, but was then adopted by neoliberal theorists to articulate theories of development which underplayed direct state action. It is thus a currently much contested term globally, globally, opposing those who see non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as crucial to developing strong democratic societies against those who argue that such NGOs simply reduplicate the rule of a Western elite.
Civil also retains contemporary political force in the collocation civil rights. This term, too, goes back to early political struggles in C17 and the OED again finds a quotation from Milton apposite: “The other part of our freedom consists in the civil rights and advanc’ments of every person according to his merit” (1660). If civil rights form an element of the arguments that see the final ousting of feudal and absolutist rule, they gain new force in the US in C20 where they refer to rights already established in the Constitution but denied to African Americans. This usage becomes generalized to cover other situations where a group (the Catholics in Northern Ireland in the 1960s and 1970s, transgender people in Western societies today) is denied rights to which they are entitled.
It is extremely difficult to provide any overall explanation of the functioning of civil within contemporary social and political discourse. As part of a collocation it is a key term in a wide array of political struggles from gay marriage to global economic justice. Its ubiquity may be explained by its ability to articulate the individual and the social while bringing little additional semantic content to that articulation.