Word of the Day: castle

Word of the Day: castle January 1, 2014

Word of the Day: castle


“A man’s home is his castle!” shouts the fat bus driver Ralph Kramden, trying to bully his wife Alice to get his way. “And in a castle there’s one king! And I’m the king!” And he cocks his head and jabs his finger at her. “I’m the king! And you – you are a peasant! I’m the king!”


To which Alice, utterly unimpressed, replies, “Aaaaah, shaaaadap!” And Ralph fumes with frustration. For all his bluster, he does love Alice, and he knows he’s being absurd, though that self-knowledge is usually covered under some thick layers of bone or other glutinous substance in his head.


The joke is that that’s not what the aphorism means, and I suspect that the audience knew that, just as they knew that when Lucy Ricardo, trying out her dramatic talents in front of Orson Welles, wasn’t getting Juliet’s line right, either. “Romeo, Romeo, wherefore art thou, Romeo?” she asks, looking around. “Romeo?” Here, boy!


It means, instead, that a man’s home, that is to say anybody’s home, is his region of authority. The man of the house and the lady of the house rule there as nobility. The castle is so named not for its medieval shape. It is a castellum, or a little castra, a little military outpost. Many of these were built on high hills, with thick stone walls and abutments for breaking a frontal attack, surrounded by rounds of earthworks, and so forth. They had grounds within for small-scale farming and for livestock, wells, cisterns, out-buildings for the manufacture of common necessaries, and various apartments for people who worked and lived within the walls.


A castle, in other words, is like a little principality. The home is a political entity with its prescriptive rights and duties. It is not a creation of the state; it precedes the state both in history and in the order of being. That is, it is more natural to man than is the city or the state, as Aristotle perceived. And just as you would not or should not presume to tell little Liechtenstein what to teach in their schools, so you have no business prescribing to the lord and lady of the castle. Their authority is not absolute, of course; it is natural, so that when they violate their natural duty by raising their hands against their children’s lives, or by corrupting their innocence in unnatural and unspeakable ways, they have themselves undermined their own castle and blown it sky-high. But otherwise, their castle is their castle. Their children are their children, not the state’s. The state is created, we might say, by the united efforts of lords and ladies of castles. Far from being subjects of the state, their children are the heirs to the castellan’s proprietary rights and duties: they are lords and ladies to be.


By the way, we can tell how far the Romans got with their military works by following castellum and castra all over Europe. In France, chateau; in England, castle; Winchester, Rochester, Leicester, Worcester, Lancaster, and so forth; in Wales, caer: Caerleon, Caerdydd (Cardiff); in Spain, with the Moorish definite article and Moorish mishearing obscuring the word: al-casr > alcazar. The words really do go everywhere. The German word for castle, Schloss, is so-called from its being shut to the outside world: a lock-up, a keep.

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