Tuesday, May 07, 2013

`Anything Beautiful, Venerable, or Worthy of Preservation'

As an English noun, sabotage is a surprisingly recent borrowing from the French. The Oxford English Dictionary’s first citation dates from 1910, from an article in the Church Times: “We have lately been busy in deploring the sabotage of the French railway strikers.” This bolster’s the word’s primary meeting: “The malicious damaging or destruction of an employer's property by workmen during a strike or the like.” Usage has broadened with time, and we speak casually of “self-sabotage” far from the workplace. But the old politically romantic notion of jamming wooden shoes – sabots – into the gears of Capital remains alive in the folk imagination. Even Orwell, who should have known better, fueled it. 

A friend passes along news that ten people, including five in the newsroom, have been laid off from the family-owned newspaper where I worked as a features writer and columnist for more than five years. That someone has been destroying toilets in the building is regrettable but hardly surprising. That management responds by imposing kindergarten bathroom regulations in response is likewise predictable. Management/labor relations, in my experience, often boil down to variations on toilet training. 

Perhaps the proper word for stuffing a toilet or urinal until it bursts is vandalism, not sabotage. A Vandal, the OED reminds us, is “a member of a Germanic tribe, which in the fourth and fifth centuries invaded Western Europe,” and by extension, “one who acts like a Vandal or barbarian; a wilful or ignorant destroyer of anything beautiful, venerable, or worthy of preservation.” Like Marcel Duchamp.

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