Your RDA of Irony

Surviving an Excursion

Excursions once offered short trips to death. In antiquity, invasion was the most common form of tourism. If the residents of a besieged city preferred not to be souvenirs, they would attempt an “ex cursio.” The Latin phrase means to run out, and its purpose translates to a surprise attack.

The excursion would rush forth from the city gates and hurl itself upon the enemy, who theoretically would be routed. Of course, the enemy was rarely so accommodating. Although ex cursio was a Latin term, it was not a Latin intention. The Romans had created the empire by doing the besieging. From their perspective, excursions simply made good target practice. By the end of the first century, the Mediterranean world had succumbed to the Roman choice of death or aqueducts.

Excursions might have had a revival in the fifth century, however, when the Romans were the ones cowering behind city walls. Unfortunately, if a Roman officer wanted his soldiers to attack the besieging barbarians, the legionaries usually responded by killing the officer. Their idea of strategy was to surrender to the Goths in preference to the Huns. Excursion lapsed into Latin obscurity.

Then, the Renaissance and desperation revived the word. In recalling the glories of Elizabethan England, the army is always omitted. Its successes consisted of escorting Jesuits to execution. Its problems stemmed from commanders who were better gigolos than soldiers. Queen Elizabeth selected her officers on their ability to flatter her. The aspiring commander was required to fawn in several languages, and his tactical skills were demonstrated by dancing. This trial of charms produced officers who could read Latin, French and Greek, but not maps.

Their incompetence would not have mattered if they had limited their duties to inspecting halberds at Greenwich Palace. Of course, being incompetent, they were unaware of it; so, they were eager to fight overseas. In the Netherlands, the English wanted to help a brave, persecuted people win their freedom from foreign oppression; and in Ireland, the English wanted to do the opposite.

Although the campaigns differed, the results were similar. The Elizabethan army made a tradition of being in an Irish ambush or a Spanish siege. Of course, there was another military tradition, one that is still observed: in the face of defeat, twist the facts into a victory. The English officers needed a euphemism for their ineptitude, and their knowledge of Latin provided one. So, instead of confessing that the English had blundered into a trap and barely fought their way out, the commanders would boast, “We made an excursion.”

Although Queen Elizabeth was susceptible to charming adventurers (and so was James I!), Parliament was not. It grew tired of subsidizing excursions and other debacles.� When Charles I wanted money for yet another military escapade in Ireland, Parliament demanded to choose the commanders. (They had to be devout Protestants who would enjoy their work in Ireland.) The King, however, would not compromise his prerogatives, and he threatened the Parliament with his army. Of course, Parliament could afford an army of its own, and Charles soon found himself making an excursion from London.

The English Civil War was to decide whether the monarch had divine rights or constitutional idiosyncrasies. Upholding the traditions of the royal army, and losing the war, the Cavaliers preferred an excursion to France rather than a visit to an English scaffold. Their exile lasted more than ten years, until 1658, when Oliver Cromwell obliged the royalists by dying. After enduring a decade of Puritanism, England longed for pageantry and syphilis, and Charles II could offer both.

The Restoration had a libidinous urgency; accelerated adultery had to compensate for all the missed opportunities. So, when a gentleman felt himself besieged by monogamy, he would attempt an excursion. Of course, bad morals still required good manners. A gentleman would graciously lie to his wife, disguising his excursion as a visit to the theater rather than to the actresses.

As both an alibi and a euphemism, excursion disseminated through the gentry. The ladies either were tactfully naive or making excursions of their own. The word certainly meant a short trip for pleasure, no matter what the motive. By the 1680s, the word had spread to the middle class, and so lost its venereal intent. Even today, however, excursion retains a trace of its military context. Consider how tour guides always stray from the itinerary to steer you to souvenir shops: excursions still tend to be ambushes.

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