Words

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The Independent Online
THE ratification of Maastricht has made us all Citizens of Europe, with powers, theoretically, to sway the destinies of nations. Perhaps we should be proud.

But in Britain the title 'citizen' has never had much resonance. The most renowned citizen in our literature is the ludicrous John Gilpin. The people whom Shakespeare calls citizens are usually clownish and ignorant; they are pawns of the politicos, like the rabble in Julius Caesar and the crowds in the English history plays. Their breath is bad, their nightcaps sweaty; they have a tendency to shout 'Hoo] Hoo]' While the main characters speak blank verse, citizens talk homespun prose.

In Cymbeline the ailing Imogen protests that she is not citizenly (meaning effete, unlike a staunch countrywoman). And half a century later we find the word insultingly abbreviated to cit, a pretty low type. Today we have the Citizens Advice Bureau, much needed by those who cannot afford a lawyer, its title proclaiming that those it helps are mainly underprivileged.

For the French the word has a different history (as indeed it has for Americans). Citoyen is a genuine flag-flapper, and stirs the blood. Your revolutionary Frenchman speaks contemptuously of le sujet britannique as opposed to le citoyen francais, who is gloriously free. This shows how wide the Channel between the two countries really is.

It was a pity, I thought, that the Foreign Office changed the legend on our passports from 'British Subject: Citizen of the United Kingdom and Colonies' to 'British Citizen', for subject was a good word. Compare its dignified use in Shakespeare, where it carries rights as well as duties, with his patronising view of citizens. To be a subject was a privilege: if you weren't one, you were more or lessstateless. Nowadays we are still subjects, but under a constitutional monarch, suggesting rights without tyranny.

Meanwhile our government's attempts to give dignity to 'citizen' have not gone too well. The Citizen's Charter casts us as underdogs, striking back, as we fill in our forms, at the insolence of uniformed officialdom.

No, I'm not proud.

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