Civil Liberties and Civic Duties

By Maeve Maddox

When I read the following sentence the other day, I had an immediate “Oh No!” reaction to the use of civil:

“At the end, I was feeling happy because I did my civil duty,”

I’ve always believed that voting is a civic duty. It’s what we do in order to live in a civil society.

Of the two, civil came into the language at an earlier date:

civil 1387, from L. civilis “of or proper to a citizen,” alternate adj. derivation of civis “townsman”

civic 1542, from L. civicus “of a citizen,” adj. derivation of civis “townsman”

I didn’t expect any of my usual references to countenance the use of “civil duty,” but answers.com actually illustrates the definition of civil with the expression I’m objecting to.

Merriam-Webster, on the other hand, gives this as one definition of

civic: of or relating to a citizen, a city, citizenship, or community affairs [for example] civic duty, civic pride

A Google search turns up numerous examples of “civil duty” in the sense of “civic duty.” This use can be argued, but it still sounds odd to me.

Civil already has such a variety of meanings that it seems unnecessary to use it as an adjective to describe the duty of a citizen when civic has served well enough up to now. Besides, the two words are not always interchangeable.

Take, for example, civic discourse and civil discourse.

In the first instance we mean conversation about matters of government and the workings of the community. In the second, we mean courteous conversation without angry outbursts or name-calling.

It may be reaching, but perhaps–as relates to government–civil can be seen as referring to the broader idea of civilization and the affairs of many people, while civic relates to the more personal needs and responsibilities of the individual citizen.

Here are some examples of common usage:

civil
civil strife, civil war
civil liberties, civil rights
civil society
civil defense

civic
civic duty
civic center
civic leaders
civic literacy
civic life
civic-minded

NOTE on The meanings of the suffixes -il and -ic:
-il –“ability to, capable of, suitable for”
-ic –“of or pertaining to”

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4 Responses to “Civil Liberties and Civic Duties”

  • Ellen

    A report in the print edition of Newsweek last week used “discomforted” in place of “discomfited.” Kind of the same misuse of words as civil and civic in that the use I object to (great phrase) is not strictly wrong, but certainly not correct if you want the reader to understand your meaning.

    Sometimes I despair …

  • b2j2

    As a civil engineer I tell people that I try to be polite.

    “Civil” engineering came into use to distinguish from “military” engineering.

  • Dottie

    I have never understood the term ‘Civil” War…

  • Robert Bennett

    Has the the rustic,the bucolic,the countryman always been regarded as a barbarian a hick and the metropolitan as having the only legitimate claim to citizenship,civilization?

    Pedestrian in road after frustrating attempt at conversation with farmer in the field:”I don’t believe there’s much between you and a FOOL!” Man with hoe:”Jes’ this yere rail fence,stranger”!

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