How Can a War Be “Civil”?
Reader Dottie remarks:
I’ve never understood the term “Civil War.”
It does sound like something of an oxymoron, doesn’t it?
Considering that one meaning of “civil” is “courteous,” calling a war “civil” does not compute. Blowing out one’s neighbor’s brains is not very polite.
In fact, the apparently contradictory meanings of the word civil already existed together in the Latin word from which it derives.
Our word civil comes from Latin L. civilis “of or proper to a citizen.” In ancient Roman culture it was a word often contrasted with militaris, “of or proper to a soldier.”
Citizens were considered to be more refined than soldiers, ergo, the adjective could mean either “of the city” or “courteous,” or both at the same time.
A “civil” war is a war between citizens of the same country.
The English Civil War (1642-1651) was a struggle between fellow citizens who disagreed regarding the power of the monarch. The English people took sides as either Royalists or Parliamentarians.
The American Civil War is one of several names for the internal conflict that took place in the United States from 1861 to 1865.
While the war was going on, Northern writers and speakers referred to it as a “civil war” because of their belief that individual states had no right to secede from the Union.
Southern speakers and writers styled it “the War between the Confederate States of America and the United States of America.” Some called it simply “the war between the states.”
Queen Victoria’s official pronouncements referred to it as
hostilities … between the Government of the United States of America and certain States styling themselves the Confederate States of America.”
According to information in a Wikipedia article, the 1861-1865 American conflict is called the War of Secession in Spanish, French, Italian, German, Polish and Portuguese.
In the U.S. most people call it the “Civil War,” but some prefer the term “War Between the States.” The latter name for it is inscribed on the USMC (United States Marine Corps) War Memorial in Arlington National Cemetery.
Another adjective for an internal struggle between citizens or members of a group is internecine.
internecine – 1. Deadly, destructive, characterized by great slaughter. internecine war: war for the sake of slaughter, war of extermination, war to the death. 2. esp. (In modern use.) Mutually destructive, aiming at the slaughter or destruction of each other. –OED
Here are two examples of its use:
So long as the majority of Canadians have two countries, one here and one in Europe, national unity will remain a myth and a constant source of internecine quarrels.–Henri Bourassa (1862-1952)
It is not the enemy in front that I fear, but the division which too often makes itself manifest in progressive ranks–it is that division, the dispersion of forces, that internecine struggle in the moments of great emergency, in the moments when the issue hangs in the balance–it is that which, I fear, may weaken our efforts and may perhaps deprive us of success otherwise within our grasp.– Winston Churchill (1874-1965)
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