Monday, January 9, 2017

My friend Recalcitrant

A few months ago I read a comment by someone named Tooty Nolan AKA Paul Trevor Nolan, a photographer and writer of science fiction and fantasy.  (He also confesses to being “a wearer of pretentious hats and spectacles”, a practice which only adds to his credibility.)

Mr. Nolan wrote:  “As regards multi-syllables:  I seldom use them because I don’t know many.  And when I do use them, my wife picks me up for writing purple prose.  She once complained when I used the word ‘recalcitrant’.  “It means bothersome.” I explained.  “It’s French in origin.” She replied with:  “Well why not use ‘bothersome’, then?  Why do you have to use words that nobody knows?”

Good point.  Why use words that nobody knows?  To quote Dilbert’s pointy-haired boss:  “Because we can!”

Actually, I love the word recalcitrant and would use it a great deal more than I do if I could get away with it.  I first fell in love with the word after I encountered it in a book by C. S. Lewis.  The book is titled That Hideous Strength, and here is the passage:

            “The small rentier is a bad element, I agree,” said Mark.  “I suppose the agricultural laborer is more controversial.”
            “The Institute doesn’t approve of him,” said Cosser.  He’s a very recalcitrant element in a planned community, and he’s always backward.”

            They walked about that village for two hours and saw with their own eyes all the abuses and anachronisms they came to destroy.  The saw the recalcitrant and backward laborer and heard his views on the weather.  They had both brought sandwiches with them, but Mark felt he would like a pint of beer.  In the Two Bells it was very warm and dark, for the window was small.  Two laborers (no doubt recalcitrant and backward) were sitting with earthenware mugs at their elbows, munching very thick sandwiches.

Recalcitrant and backward!  What a delicious image–even the sandwiches cry out, “I am being eaten by a very recalcitrant person in a most backward way!”  Recalcitrant is the perfect word for that passage.  Substitute the word “bothersome” for “recalcitrant” and the image blurs, although “backward and bothersome” is a lovely alliteration.

Webster’s Encyclopedic Unabridged Dictionary of the English Language defines recalcitrant as “resisting authority or control; not obedient or compliant.” 
Synonyms include, but are not limited to:  resistant, rebellious, opposed, stubborn, obstinate, perverse, mulish, headstrong, intractable, disobedient, ungovernable, and refractory.
A planned community whose social compact is based on control would, no doubt, find the recalcitrant element bothersome indeed.

(Note:  Set Lewis’ story in a monastery, and it would be two refractory monks in the refectory.  On the farm, it would be two intractable field hands on a tractor, persevering in being perverse.)

As I write this, I realize that I not only love the word recalcitrant, I love all its many relatives, its mother and its father, its siblings and cousins, and its aunts and uncles–the whole bothersome family.  And why is this?  It’s because we need them.  We need them in every society, community, and culture where a majority can impose its will on an unwilling minority.  Thus, they are needed everywhere.

As I write this, you may think you have no need of the recalcitrant family; perhaps you are in the majority right now.  But there may come a time when find yourself a member of a most unwilling minority.  Then you will be glad to know resistant, stubborn, mulish, refractory, and, yes, even recalcitrant.  Bothersome though they are, they will make sure that your voice is heard.

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