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VOL. 129 | NO. 124 | Thursday, June 26, 2014

Vic Fleming

Let’s Talk Civics

By Vic Fleming

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I type in the word civics at OneLook Dictionary Search. Giving credit to “MacMillan Dictionary,” the site gives me “a school subject in which you study how government works and what people’s rights, duties, and responsibilities are as citizens.”

OK, so MacMillan uses the second person (you) in its definitions. Below this, I see “the social science of municipal affairs,” with WordNet being cited.

I’ve been asked to provide a crossword suitable for the teenage minor offspring of soon-to-be naturalized U.S. citizens. An adultized version of that puzzle appears as this week’s I Swear Crossword. You ask, “Is adultized a word?”

I reply, “Of course.” It’s what lexicographer Erin McKean, co-founder of Wordnik, calls an undictionaried word. In this context, it clearly signals a crossword with harder clues.

Civics, however, is very much a dictionaried word, and I want to know whence it cometh. MacMillan gets to a point, but not to the point. Even Wordnik, with its examples of actual usage, doesn’t take me where I want to go.

In my hardback “Webster’s,” I learn that civic comes from the Latin civicus and the French civis, meaning citizen. Dating from 1542, this singular-looking word means “of or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or civil affairs.” A bit lower on the page is civics, dating from 1886, noted to be plural, although singular or plural in construction. Its meaning: “a social science dealing with the rights and duties of citizens.”

In between civic and civics, civic-minded and civic-mindedness hold down their fort (or forts). But so far, nothing has told me what I want to know: How do these root words that start with civ lead to words that start with cit? Like citizen, which “Webster’s” tells me is from Middle English’s citizein and Anglo-French’s citezein and, more directly, from cite, meaning city.

Wikipedia, though wordy and discussional, is equally unhelpful, though it does note that “The history of civics dates back to the earliest theories of civics by Confucius.” Got that? The concept’s history begins with the earliest theory about the concept. Duh!

At the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website, I find “There are 100 civics questions on the naturalization test.” These questions, plus their answers, are freely downloadable, in several languages. As expected, they are weighted toward the more famous presidents and distinguishing characteristics of U.S. government in general and the Constitution in particular. But there are a good many historical factoids as well.

In the “Recent American History” section, though, an unexpected item jumped out at me. Question 86 – between “What did Martin Luther King Jr. do?” and “Name one American Indian tribe in the United States” – reads, “What major event happened on September 11, 2001, in the United States?”

I point this out because one of the few people who has already solved this week’s I Swear Crossword opined that a reference in the puzzle to this event seemed inapt to the theme. That opinion led to my curiosity about civics and, thus, to this column itself.

Vic Fleming is a district court judge in Little Rock, Ark., where he also teaches at the William H. Bowen School of Law. Contact him at vicfleming@att.net.

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