Bodies politic

Two days ago I posted on parasites and the body politic — well, on a family of expressions linking the two, of which parasites on/upon/in the body politic are central examples. My assumption was that these expressions were in fact instances of a formula, now quite common — and, indeed, common in certain contexts since (as it turns out) at least the late 19th century (see the comments on the earlier postings).

Attempting to track things back earlier than this (as Michael Palmer has been so valiantly doing) leads to a set of examples in which the idiom body politic is involved in medical metaphors. This is parallel to the situation with other formulaic expressions (clichés and snowclones, in particular), where research on their history takes us back to the circumstances that gave rise to the formulas — that is, to times before the expressions were fixed in form.

But first, notes on body politic itself.

The expression got an OED entry recently (in OED3 as of Nov. 2010): body politic, n. [pl. bodies politic]:

1. A nation regarded as a corporate entity; (with the) the state.
Freq. with body contrasted with the head of state, or used in medical metaphors. [cites from a1475 through 2002]

2. Law. A corporation; = body corporate n.Now rare. [cites from 1536 through 1952 (“The King is regarded in law as both a body politic and body natural.”)]

3. Any organized society or association of persons. [cites from 1596 through 2002]

The anatomical and medical metaphor examples for the first sense:

1757    M. Postlethwayt Great Britain’s True Syst. v. 106   The Sea Ports are the Arteries of the Body Politic, the capital City is its Heart.

1887    Publ. Amer. Econ. Assoc. 1 28   These [transportation businesses] are the nerves and arteries of the body politic, and should be directed from a common center.

1932    M. Anderson in K. Coe & W. H. Cordell Pulitzer Prize Plays 1918–1934(1935) 759/2   The whole damn government’s a gang of liver flukes, sucking the blood out of the body politic.

1975    K. Tynan Diary 2 Oct. (2001) 277   The workers are the blood and muscle of the body politic, while the great majority of the intelligentsia are merely frayed nerve-ends.

2002    W. Self Dorian (2003) iii. 47   Taking the long view, perhaps the West End junkies with their Dikes and Rits were the obsessive psychic abscess that, once burst, spread this poison throughout the body politic.

The anatomical and medical metaphors are quite natural, given the body in body politic. At some point parasites were worked into the story, and the parasitebody politic connection became a cliché, apparently well established by the late 19th century. It might be possible to find an occurrence — a well-known quotation, for example — that served as the precipitating use, but then again it might not. Sometimes these things just spread.

Here’s the full scenario, as laid out in a 2006 Language Log posting of mine:

Pre-formula stage: an idea is expressed in various ways, say “what one person likes, another person detests”, “things that please some people repel others”, etc.  All of these expressions are understood literally, require no special knowledge (beyond knowledge of the language) to understand, and can be created on the spot.

First fixing: somebody produces an especially apt way of expressing the idea, uses an effective metaphor, or devises a memorable title or name.  This expression, which is essentially fixed in form, then spreads, and gains currency as a cliché, catch phrase, proverb, quotation, or well-known title or name.  “One man’s meat is another man’s poison”, for instance.  Or the movie title “Brokeback Mountain”.

Variation on the fixed expression: the fixed expression may quickly extend by developing open slots, or by playful allusion to it (via puns or other variations of it).  “One man’s Mede is another man’s Persian”, for instance.  In many cases, every part of the fixed expression that can be varied for effect is, by somebody or other.

Snowcloning (the second fixing): these variants become (relatively) fixed as formulas with open slots in them, as in “One man’s X is another man’s Y”.  It’s still possible to play creatively with the expression (just as we can play creatively with idioms), but most occurrences of variants will fit the template.  I don’t think we’re there yet with the “Brokeback Mountain” variants, and I suspect that (as with the Eye Guy variants [based on “Queer Eye for the Straight Guy”]) we’ll never get there; once the movie and the television show recede from the front stage of popular culture, these variants will be seen as quaint relics of the past.

We seem to be at the “variation on the fixed expression” stage for the Parasite/Body Politic figure, with (from the previous posting)

parasites infesting the body politic, parasites dining on the body politic, parasites attacking the body politic, parasites growing inside the body politic, parasites sucking on the body politic, etc., mostly in political commentary.

Compare the X3 snowclone, the template:

The three most important Xs in Y are: Z, Z, Z (conveying something like ‘the only really important X in Y is Z’

The development of this template has been traced to real-estate ads in the 1950s (lengthy discussion here), but there’s a millennia-long pre-snowclone history, involving repeating expressions for emphasis and then repeating them exactly three times for some effect. Trying to track the figure back before the 50s just leads into all this other stuff.

There’s a similar issue with the Bear-Eating figure (exemplified by “Sometimes you eat the bear, sometimes the bear eats you”), discussed on this blog here. Trying to take the figure back in time leads to a pile of ways of conveying ‘Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose’, to formally chiastic expressions (“Eat to live, not live to eat”), and to conceptually chiastic expressions, conveying role reversals (“Some days you’re the windshield, some days you’re the bug”). I’m still trying to sort out this material out, though there does seem to be at least a set of variations on the bear-eating proverb in there. A topic for another posting, but it’s similar to the way trying to track Parasites/Body Politic back in time eventually takes you to anatomical and medical metaphors involving body politic (and forward to variations like parasites on society and drains on the body politic).


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: