Mortality and moribund languages

This summer, in addition to tutoring and general labrattery, I’ve been trying my hand at construction work (residential and commercial carpentry, for those to whom that means anything). While I understood that the work would be dirty, dangerous and demeaning, I did not anticipate it also wholly rotting my mind. Let me drop some Smith on you:

In the progress of the division of labour, the employment of the far greater part of those who live by labour, that is, of the great body of the people, comes to be confined to a few very simple operations, frequently to one or two. But the understandings of the greater part of men are necessarily formed by their ordinary employments. The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects are perhaps always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding or to exercise his invention in finding out expedients for removing difficulties which never occur. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become. The torpor of his mind renders him not only incapable of relishing or bearing a part in any rational conversation, but of conceiving any generous, noble, or tender sentiment, and consequently of forming any just judgment concerning many even of the ordinary duties of private life. Of the great and extensive interests of his country he is altogether incapable of judging, and unless very particular pains have been taken to render him otherwise… It corrupts even the activity of his body, and renders him incapable of exerting his strength with vigour and perseverance in any other employment than that to which he has been bred. His dexterity at his own particular trade seems, in this manner, to be acquired at the expense of his intellectual, social, and martial virtues. But in every improved and civilised society this is the state into which the labouring poor, that is, the great body of the people, must necessarily fall, unless government takes some pains to prevent it.

Smith is writing, of course, before internal combustion or electric power, before Whitney, Ford, Gilbreth, Gantt and Taylor.

Also salient as an initiate in the industry is the casual prevalence of severe injury. Every craftsman I’ve asked about the subject volunteered stories of hungry saw blades or falls from roofs broken by one’s own nail gun. (The man was helped to his feet and insisted that he could pry the nail that joined three fingers out himself. He then applied a bandanna to the wound and returned to work.) What they haven’t endured, moreover, they’ve witnessed. One told me of a friend who stepped through a three story scaffold, reached out instinctively to the tool belt of the man beside him, grabbed the wrong end of a hatchet, and took home a lacerated hand to complement his shattered femur. A man died two months ago on my current site, crushed inside of a tower crane.

Today, guiding two hundred pound beams into their new homes in the awning of some future asian bistro franchise nonsense, I posed to myself the career planning acid test: would I be better off in Iraq?

Precise answers are difficult to come by, both for the difficulty of classing the work that I do and ambiguity about what exactly counts as “in Iraq” and for how long. The fact that it’s not easy to say, though, is instructive in itself. Mortality rates vary highly by branch of service, MOS, rank and gender, and ultimately construction falls somewhere between Marine infantry LCPLs and Navy cooks, slightly below the mean for all military personnel. The answer is a qualified perhaps.

Also, check out Walter Ong’s Latin Language Study as a Renaissance Puberty Rite if you can. I can’t find a link to the article (1959), but this annotation gives one the picture.


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