Sunday, January 18, 2015

`Persons Gathered Together in Crowds'

Gregarious is one of those positive-sounding adjectives that makes one wary. Granted, I know people I would describe as gregarious who are generously gifted with good humor and cheer, and make excellent company. But the character type is easily adopted as camouflage by a more sinister and fraudulent species, the exemplar of which is the unctuous used-car salesman, all smiles and bonhomie. In other words, an ingratiating con man. Dickens makes frequent use of both types.
My investigation was prompted by an unfamiliar word in Johnson’s Dictionary: grégal. He defines it as “belonging to a flock,” and the OED broadens its zoological implications to include the human: “pertaining to a flock, or to the multitude.” It also describes the word as “rare” and gives its root as gregālis, “flock, crowd, multitude.” The most recent usage cited dates from 1873. Johnson next gives us the word we recognize, gregarious: “going in flocks or herds, like sheep or partridges.” The OED’s first definition is similarly biological: “living in flocks or communities, given to association with others of the same species.”Only secondarily do we get “Of persons: Inclined to associate with others, fond of company.” A further definition is also human but neutral: “of or pertaining to a flock or community; characteristic of or affecting persons gathered together in crowds.” 

All of this comes as etymological news, though I’m not surprised. I’ve always been allergic to collective activities, anything associated with crowds, whether softball or a cross burning. Much of my distaste for politics and suspect religion involves immersion in the herd. Whether synchronized swimming or the chanting of slogans, I want nothing to do with it, though writers, always worrying about how affectionately they are regarded, and forever wishing to be seen as au courant, are particularly susceptible to herd-think. Orwell nailed it in his essay on Swift and Gulliver’s Travels: “Public opinion, because of the tremendous urge to conformity in gregarious animals, is less tolerant than any system of law.”

[A reader in New York City writes: "It has stuck in my mind ever since high school Latin class with Miss Rosebrook, an excellent teacher: egregious coming from ex gregio -- `out of the flock.'  Its a word I've always liked."]


Subbuteo said...

Seem to remember Dante uses "gregge" in the Commendia to describe herds of lost souls.

Subbuteo said...

For example "D'anime nude vidi molte gregge/Vidi numerosi stuoli di anime nude" from the Inferno