Of Jackboots and Tumbrels, and Other Not-Nice Things

In the 1940s, George Orwell, fighting a long campaign to keep the English of his contemporaries clean and honest, directed some of his fire against the word “jackboot”, denoting a type of cavalry equipment that was already mostly useful only as a symbol of totalitarianism. In his “As I Please” column (#62), he complained of being unable to determine what a jackboot was, exactly, and quipped that it must be “a kind of boot that you put on when you want to behave tyrannically”. Orwell's definition has stuck with me because it is obviously even more apt now that “jackboot” (and indeed, all the language used to condemn 20th century fascism) is even more stale and meaningless than ever, while showing absolutely no signs of being retired in favor of something fresher.

So it was a surprise to come across jackboots, as part of the ordinary equipment of some not-necessarily-authoritarian person traveling by horse, in Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities recently. It struck my 2018 ear and made me take notice, reminding me to think about the politicization of words and causing a brief moment of something like relief, because it brought me to a time before ideological warfare became quite so constant a feature of life.

But Orwell got the last laugh. Only a little further into Tale Dickens gave exactly the jackboot treatment to “tumbrel”, meaning a farmer's two-wheeled horse-drawn cart but now a word stained forever because such carts were used to haul prisoners to the guillotine during the French Revolution, because Dickens rarely referred to them with any other word, and because he set some memorable scenes in and around them. You can encounter the word here and there to this day, and unless you're reading something technical about medieval agriculture, it'll be in the Dickensian sense and used to paint a picture of coming class war. A tumbrel has become a cart for doing bad things in.

So my relief was short-lived; although I think it's still worth keeping one's ear sensitive to this sort of word. At least I'd like to think a more non-political English language isn't something to wearily abandon or to find only in the distant (apparently pre-Dickens) past.

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