Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Yahoo (Since 1726)

I could frequently distinguish the word Yahoo, which was repeated by each of them several times; and although it was impossible for me to conjecture what it meant, yet, while the two horses were busy in conversation, I endeavoured to practice this word upon my tongue; and as soon as they were silent, I boldly pronounced Yahoo, in a loud voice, imitating at the same time, as near as I could, the neighing of a horse; at which they were both visibly surprised, and the gray repeated the same word twice, as if he meant to teach me the right accent; wherein I spoke after him as well as I could, and found myself perceivably to improve every time, though very far from any degree of perfection. Then the bay tried me with a second word, much harder to be pronounced; but reducing it ‘to’ the English orthography, may be spelt thus—Houyhnhnms.
 Travels into Several Remote Nations of the World, in Four Parts. By Lemuel Gulliver, First a Surgeon, and then a Captain of several Ships

One of the downsides of a fading liberal education is that fewer and fewer people are even aware of Johnathan Swift (1667-1745), a harsh Irish satirist and clergyman. And even those who’ve had such an education tend to forget. Hence this post was inspired by Brigitte musing aloud, seeing a Yahoo ad in the paper: “I wonder where the word comes from?” To be sure the careful movie-goer might see the name as the credits roll by. That’s because, while Swift’s forgotten, his work, Gulliver’s Travels, lives on. Its most recent rendering has been a 2010 movie. Alas, it has been modernized—and only includes Gulliver’s adventures in the land of Lilliput. Stopping there, the movie only includes Part I of the entire tale. And the yahoos appear in the country of the Houyhnhnms in Part IV. The Houyhnhnms are intelligent, highly cultured horses who rule over a very primitive, dirty, savage, and hairy tribe of creatures; they very much resemble Gulliver himself except for the fact that he is wearing clothes. The quote above is the first mention of Yahoo in the narrative itself. Gulliver has not yet learned the language. And the two noble steeds are, evidently, discussing him, wondering what kind of strange yahoo he is.

As a culture decays, the serious tales of its long history turn into fairy tales—or, if the technology has just been advancing, into science fiction. But much is lost in the process. Now arguably Gulliver’s Travels suggests, not at all subtly, that in the world as it exists (or, for Swift, existed in the early eighteenth century), it is far more pleasing to have intercourse with horses than with people, given what people are. But those parts of the tale that underscore this bitter conclusion are not shown.

Swift, by the way, also pioneered an early version of a modern movie, Soylent Green (1973). It took the form of what he called A Modest Proposal (1729). In it he suggests that impoverished Irish families should sell their children to rich Englishmen to be served up as food. The young, one imagines, might taste better than the old folks of Soylent Green who were required to report for their final disposition at a so-called clinic called Home.

Now, mind you, all of Swift’s labors to reform his eighteenth century society—and by inference the greater society, ours, that sprang from that splendid eighteenth century British seed—had zero effect in changing the vector of culture. Which teaches something real about reform.

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