Bourgeois burghers living in bergs

When you examine the names of towns in the United Kingdom, what will strike you is the amount of them which end in some variant of ‘burg’; Middlesbrough, Edinburgh, Scarborough and Glastonbury are but a few of such towns. The reason for its ubiquity is that it simply means ‘fortified place’. However, it is not until you look into the history of this word that you realise quite how widespread it is and the social assumptions it reflects.

‘Burg’ itself derives the Proto-Indo-European word bhergh, which means ‘high’. This word led to various derivatives referring to hills, forts and fortified places in general, and is also the root of the English ‘barrow’, as in Tolkein’s ‘The Barrow Downs’. As you might have guessed, Proto-Indo-European forms the root of nearly every European language, and as such you can find cognates for bhergh across the continent. As well as the English variants mentioned above, we have Strasbourg, Nuremberg, Hamburg, Bergen and Svendborg to name but a few. Similarly, Italian has borgo, which typically describes the built-up area outside of the old town, and its diminutive, borghetto, is from where we get the word ‘ghetto’. As you may have already guessed, the word iceberg is from the same root, simply meaning ‘ice mountain’.

It is fairly obvious that a word referring to fortification would crop up frequently in the names of our towns, but not so obvious that it would end up forming the basis of one of our most evocative words that refers to class – bourgeois. The word simply means ‘one who dwells in a town’, and came into fashion in the 1700s. Philosopher Jean Jacques-Rousseau, who despaired of the ‘effeminate’ and privileged lifestyle of the city as opposed to that of his ‘noble savages’, was particularly instrumental in shaping the word’s meaning to one of cosy and aloof living. The same etymology is found in the Dutch burgher, which came to refer to the wealthy merchant class in the Dutch trading cities, and even in the English ‘burgess’, one of the first words used to describe an elected representative.

In contrast to these wealthy city dwellers, we have the hated and mocked rural ‘peasants’. Peasant derives from the French paysan, which comes from pays (country) and ultimately the Latin pagus (also meaning country). It is from this same Latin word that ‘pagan’ derives, the early Church despairing of those who dwelt in the country and still worshipped the ‘old gods’. (It should be noted that ‘pheasant’ has no relation to any of this, and means ‘bird from the River Phasis’.) It is fascinating to see how this innocent suffix has ended up embodying one of the biggest divides in all modern nations – the gap between the ‘cultured’ metropolitans and the ‘backwards’ country folk.