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Wander 3. "Basic"

Updated: May 17, 2019

So Basic

"Basic," adj. 1. "Used to describe someone devoid of defining characteristics that might make a person interesting, extraordinary, or just simply worth devoting time or attention to." - Urban Dictionary

Some time around 2009, the word "basic" emerged from the bowels of internet exchange. According to this piece in The American Reader, the term first flourished among young women and gay men. As insults go, "basic" usually genders feminine very often pairs with the word "bitch," though the terms "Basic Boy" and "Basic Bro" are also in use.

While this use of "basic" sounds distinctly twenty-first century, it resonates clearly with a much older sense of its root's "base," as it were:

Base Etymology

While the basics are foundational and important, to be base is to be common or "low-class." In many respects, the now antiquated usage of base has returned in the form of basic. Note the parallels between Urban Dictionary usages of basic (in blue) vs. early modern English examples of base (in red):

I tried to get to know him, but after I spent 10 minutes with him, I realized he was too basic for me to waste time on.

"To the keeping of him from sin...a more base estate was better."

Thomas More, Treatise on Passion, 1534 Is there anything unique or special about her? I have a feeling she's pretty basic...

"Love in no base person may aspire to grace."

Sir Philip Sidney, The Countess of Pembroke's Arcadia, 1593 He's probably the dumbest person on earth. Too basic to even carry on a semi-intelligent conversation.

"It were in vain for a base person to sue to be a King, a Duke, or a Lord."

Richard Greenham, 1612

Putting down anyone low-class, dull, or uninteresting elevates the speaker in relation to them. Fittingly, one translation of the Greek βάσις is "stepping-stone." Naming the basic is claiming status.

Base Tenure was a legal tenancy status for common peasants subject to a feudal lord. Black's Law Dictionary still defines the term as "tenure by villenage," as opposed to tenure by military service or free service. The Anglo-Norman phrase tenant in villeinage translates to "attached to the soil."

Villenage (sometimes vilainage) derives from Old French vilain, peasant or common person, but also "base or wicked person." This comes to French from medieval Latin, villanus, from classical Latin villa, country house, from which we get village. Villainy, in this elder sense, is to be dirt poor and morally corrupt by association.

Base villains called for particular punishment in sixteenth-century France, according to Claude Hollyband's Dictionary of French and English (1593):

Chasti-villain: A whip, scourge or cudgel to punish and chasten a knave or villain: Holds and Forts in towns are so called.

We might here remember our discussion on the fasces, English fascine, bundles of rods symbolizing state power and used to build city fortifications, found in our post on the word Bachelor. Recall that the English slur, f*ggot, takes this same root, and thus finds a sort of grim companionship with basic.

These two terms, rather than sharing a clear etymological link, form complementary puzzle pieces in a logic of power and punishment, structures of the same house, if you like. F*ggot and its associated etymons associate with walls and punishments for enemies (witches, for example, and other non-normative types we see eye-to-eye). Basic, on the other hand, names the dirt, the foundation, the very ground we tread. It is beneath notice or acknowledgment, and if it rises above its station, it earns the same punishment.

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