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“Mob” Mentality, from Jonathan Swift to Karl Rove

When White House adviser Karl Rove broke the story of his resignation to the Wall Street Journal earlier this week, he denied that the timing had anything to do with pending Congressional investigations. “I’m not going to stay or leave based on whether it pleases the mob,” he insisted. Rove’s rather derisive use of the word mob raised some eyebrows in political quarters. Monica Hesse of the Washington Post wrote that mob is “a three-letter grenade of a word — so French Revolution, so frothy-mouthed peasants torching the streets.” The word is a clipped form of mobile, which in turn is shortened from the Latin expression mobile vulgus, meaning ‘the changeable common people, the fickle crowd.’ Though the word refers to the inconstancy of the multitude, the English-speaking masses have stayed pretty constant in their usage of mob. As I’m quoted in the Post article as saying, the core sense of mob hasn’t shifted much from its 17th-century origins, and that sense is almost always negative.

The Latinism mobile vulgus entered English around 1600. The noun vulgus refers to the common people, while the adjective mobile (pronounced with three syllables, MO-bee-lay) means ‘fickle, changing’ — opera lovers will recognize the Italian form of the word from the famous song in Verdi’s Rigoletto, “La donna è mobile” (‘Woman is fickle’). By 1676 mobile vulgus was commonly shortened to mobile, and a dozen years later mobile began showing up with only the first syllable intact. In this age of cell phones, high-def TVs, and digicams, it’s good to remember that the clipping of long words to make short ones has been going on in English for centuries and is not simply a product of our rushed technological world.

That’s not to say that the literati were particularly happy about the word mob at the time of its early popularization. Jonathan Swift was particularly opposed to the neologism. Writing in The Tatler in 1710, Swift dolefully wrote, “I have done my utmost for some Years past, to stop the Progress of Mob … but have been plainly born down by Numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist me.” The following year in The Spectator, Joseph Addison commiserated, “It is perhaps this Humour of speaking no more than we needs must which has so miserably curtailed some of our Words, as in mob … and the like.” But purists like Swift and Addison could not stop the spread of mob, and the word became a firmly entrenched part of the lexicon.

Most commonly, mob has served as a put-down either for the mass of public opinion, as Rove used it, or for a particular group of people seen as chaotic, disorderly, or criminal. (Of course, “the Mob” also came to be used in the 20th-century to refer to the crime syndicate also known as “The Mafia.”) To get a sense of how pejoratively the word mob is used in contemporary English, I took a look at the Oxford English Corpus, in order to see what sort of lexical crowd mob hangs out with. For instance, the Corpus can say what verbs typically show up in conjunction with mob, depending on whether mob appears in a sentence as a subject or an object. What does a mob do when it’s the subject of a sentence? It attacks, torches, lynches, storms, burns, kills, rampages, and murders. And what do you do to a mob as the direct object of a sentence? You disperse it, incite it, lead it, join it, escape it, quell it, or face it. Finally, we can look at what types of words tend to fill the slot “mob of ___”. Here we find mobs of cattle, people, fanatics, youths, villagers, hooligans, thugs, and fundamentalists.

Not all mob usage has been negative. It can be used without disparagement as a form of self-identification among certain groups, such as aboriginal communities in Australia. And recent appeals to the “wisdom of the masses” in the digital era have opened up a range of new positive connotations for mob. Howard Rheingold coined the term smart mob (in turn based on flash mob) to refer to a large group of people that is able to mobilize for a social or political goal using new electronic media like text-messaging. Meanwhile, Andy Carvin came up with the concept of mobcasting, the collaborative creation of mobile phone podcasts for activist purposes. It’s safe to say, however, that Karl Rove was not thinking about any of these innovative uses of mob when he griped to the Wall Street Journal about the capriciousness of public opinion. That traditional image of “frothy-mouthed peasants torching the streets” may indeed be more what he had in mind.

Ben Zimmer is an editor at Oxford University Press and a true word junkie. Once a week he surfaces from his dictionaries to write this column. Check out his “words of the week” on our main page (center column) or by clicking here.

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  2. Charles Bellemare

    Fascinating website. Thank you.

    I was wondering if you would agree with me that Swift was probably joking when he wrote, “I have done my utmost for some Years past, to stop the Progress of Mob … but have been plainly born down by Numbers, and betrayed by those who promised to assist.” Numbers? Promises betrayed? Sounds like a fickle crowd to me.

    If your characterisation of his words as doleful signals that you were joking too, I’ll just get me coat.

  3. […] at the accepted explanation. The etymon of ajar is said to be on char (1510; cf. at char, 1708; Jonathan Swift). Char(e) is related to Old Engl. cierran “to turn.” Its root can be detected in charwoman and […]

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