Your RDA of Irony

The Quality of Mercy

Mercy was the stock and trade of the Roman Empire. True, an Empire of mad Caesars, blood-crazed mobs and well-fed lions would not seem very charitable or lenient. (You could ask a Carthaginian if there were any left.) However, in its original Latin, mercy had nothing to do with virtue. It meant “trade.” The Latin word “mercari” proved remarkably versatile, the root for market, merchant, mercenary and even the name of a God. Fleet-footed and sleight-of-hand, Mercury was the patron of traders…and thieves. Mercari also provided France a way to say “thank you.” Finally, and unintentionally, mercari became the English word for clemency.

Let’s begin this mercurial odyssey. The Romans introduced “mercari” to Gaul but it hardly made a good first impression. After all, at Roman insistence, the Gaulish traded their liberty, land and livestock in exchange for the right to keep breathing. For four centuries, mercari meant supplying the local garrison with wine and pornographic pottery. Beginning in the fifth century, however, the word was reinvented, “new and improved” by a software company called Christianity.

Its sales force understood the principles of marketing. Prospective converts needed an incentive if they were to trade Jove for Jesus. So, the missionaries offered their customers a mercedes. No, it was not a deluxe German chariot, but it was a miracle of marketing. The word mercedes , in fact, was a variation of mercari, but its meaning had been embellished and burnished. A mercedes was more than a mere trade; it was a bargain, a reward, a blessing!

Those missionaries made a compelling sales pitch, guaranteeing morality and salvation. All that paganism could promise was provocative theater. The Gaulish realized which religion was the mercedes. In the fifth century, the conquering Franks came to the same conclusion and traded in Wotan. Since mercedes was synonymous with reward or blessing, the French began saying it to express appreciation. They did abridge it to two syllables-“merci”-but the French were never long on gratitude.

The English learned “mercy” from the Normans, and the lesson was in both Latin and French. The Norman conquerors included bishops as well as barons. The new prelates of England were bound by the tenets of Christianity, and the Church still promised “mercedes.” However, after six centuries in the Dark Ages, the Church really wasn’t feeling chipper. In this bleak 11th century perspective, the world was sinful, and mankind was unworthy of God’s mercedes. Such blessings were an undeserved favor. Of course, the Norman clergy were eager to terrorize their conquered congregations, promising eternal damnation unless the English proved abjectly servile. Even then, their hope of salvation was slim, dependent upon the generosity of Heaven. Any fate other than Hell was an act of mercedes.

Living under the Normans, the English already had a familiarity with Hell. The Normans were descended from Vikings who had overrun France. Over a century, they had acquired a facade of French culture, although the Norman idea of Christian conduct was limited to shaving. Now the new masters of England, they made no attempt to endear themselves to their subjects. On the contrary, the Normans routinely terrorized the English to teach them their place-with the livestock. The battered and cowed English became accustomed to abuse and degradation.

Then, the unexpected occurred in the 12th century. It might have been during Lent or in the wake of the Chivalry craze. An English servant had just finished his debasing drudgery (perhaps licking the stables) and now expected to receive a slap or a kick from the Norman lord or lady. Instead, the Norman muttered “merci.” The servant kept waiting for some affliction but nothing happened. The Norman repeated “merci” and waved the Englishman away. The amazed and relieved servant had never before heard the word “merci” but he could guess its meaning. The Norman was saying, “I won’t hurt you.”

By the 13th century, the distortion of mercedes and the misinterpretation of merci had converged into our meaning of mercy. So, from Roman greed, medieval gloom and Norman arrogance, we derived an expression of virtue. Whether or nor mankind is inherently sinful, we are habitually ironic.

  1. Bob Kincaid says:

    So this guy’s touring the Australian Outback. Toward the end of the day, he comes to a dusty little crossroads called Mercy.

    Deciding to call it a day, he ambles into the local watering hole and looks at the menu. Since it’s just about tea time, he orders a cup of the local brew, something they call “Koala.”

    When it arrives, he finds it floating with all manner of stems and leaves.

    He asks the bloke at the bar what gives.

    Comes the reply: “Mate, didn’t anyone tell you? The Koala Tea of Mercy is not strained.”

    I’ll be here all week. Try the ribs. Don’t forget to tap, er, tip your waitress.

  2. Rey Hinckley says:

    The real source of the term came from an Englishman who was hospitalized at Mercy Hospital In Sydney. The hospital was staffed by the Sisters of Mercy, a Roman Catholic order of women dedicated to working on health issues.

    The gentleman had asked the nurse/sister for a spot of tea. The nurse explained that the tea at Mercy Hospital was brewed from tea leaves but by pouring bolling water into a pot of hairs from a special breed of koala bears.

    When the tea had arrived he complained about the number of hairs in the cup. The nurse had humbly stated that, “the koala tea of mercy isn’t strained”.

    Sorry for the merciless explanation.

  1. There are no trackbacks for this post yet.

Leave a Reply