Friday, September 21, 2007

Recreant v. Miscreant

Recreant was a recent DD wotd of which, quite honestly, I had never heard. Probably would have thought it was a derogatory way of describing someone with too many weekend pursuits (he's a real recreant of tennis, golf and pool), but that's clearly not right. Of course, this immediately conjures miscreant in my mind as a pair ripe for comparison. Miscreant is a great word, and a personal favorite of mine to describe some teenagers or those obnoxious 'tweens who lack direction.

Recreant comes from Latin "credere" for "to believe" through the French past participle of "recroire" meaning to "yield in a trial by combat" or more figuratively, yielding the cause. Ok, so I may find this an unusual etymological evolution, so I'll start with the prefix. "Re" usually means again, but it has another limited usage meaning "back", as in to take back, which would make more sense in this context as to "take back a belief". Unfortunately, that only gets us part way to its current meaning of "cowardly" or "disloyal", but if knights originally took oaths of duty and loyalty to defend and honor the beliefs of the king and, by extension in Medieval times, the church, to yield those beliefs was cowardly and disloyal, as well as obviously "unfaithful". Whew. Compare this to miscreant, which has the same Latin root, but with the prefix "mis", which means "wrong". Therefore, miscreant means one who has a wrong belief, compared to recreant as one who has given up a correct belief. Now, just to compound matters, over time, miscreant has taken on meanings of vicious and depraved, and not just heretic and infidel, which reference the boundaries of having a wrong belief system, likely as an extension of the common thought of what people were like if they didn't have the proper and accepted belief system. Meanwhile, recreant has some overtones of being a traitor, implying that by abandoning the cause, you have gone to the other side, which is not a logical extension (you could abstain). It is a fine line between retreat and crossing over, but what we see is that in Medieval times through the Renaissance, any waiver of faith was as good as sinning. Recreant, miscreant, you were still damned and outside of society.

Now for the fun part--application. Pretty clearly, both of these words apply to people and the activities of people. Miscreant youth loiter in the mall waiting for stores to close so they can mug the last customer. Recreant youth engage in a night of binge drinking and then cheat on a test the next day, despite the honor code, just to maintain their 4.0 averages. He's a real miscreant for cheating on his wife, but a recreant for walking away from the argument. Yes to the first, maybe to the second. However, since both miscreant and recreant have "belief" in their origins, this requires sentience and intent to abandon or reject the belief. Therefore, these words cannot apply to other animates, or tangibles or intangibles, except, as always, to the extent that we try to give them such cognitive powers. The miscreant dog may urinate on the carpet, but it was merely a biological function, and not a deliberate act to annoy me. The miscreant cat which defecated in my shoe because I didn't clean the litter box...that's another story. Recreant is harder to use since it requires double the cognitive intent--the first to engage in the act and the second to withdraw from it. The dog was initially anxious for his morning walk but immediately became recreant upon realizing the intense rain. This just sounds stupid. The proper word is reluctant, or possibly reticent, or even just unwilling. I think the extra level of cognitive process of recreant restricts it from usages, no matter how sarcastic, beyond people. The recreant Plaintiff's counsel asked the Court to withdraw as attorney of record for his client when he learned that his client was lying to him. Since nearly all plaintiffs lie to their attorney about something relating to their case (how the accident really occurred, how much pain they really have...), to suddenly be put off by the lie is akin to yielding the cause, and litigation is the current form of trial by combat, so this works quite well. The miscreant Plaintiff's attorney would steal the retainer and do no work. Miscreant is just too easy to use. All you have to do is think of amoral activities or people. Recreant requires more nuance of someone who has lost faith in the cause. Dropping out of high school from teenage pregnancy is recreant? Possibly, although adversity is not the condition for yielding. Dropping out of high school because your senior advisor said you won't amount to anything. That's a better and more accurate usage. Education is supposed to help you aspire to better goals, so accepting the opinion that you can't make any of those goals is yielding the cause of education. Ok, perhaps a little to esoteric, but you get the picture. So, let us not be recreant in our usage of the English language that these words may be used in a miscreant fashion.

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