“The mayor doesn’t want to see the bondage between the townspeople stop…”

The full quotation isn’t any closer to what my student actually meant than the opening is:

“The mayor doesn’t want to see the bondage between the townspeople stop. That’s why he is giving them a place outside the city so that people can keep their bondage.”

At first glance, the passage seems to be referring to a slave-holding society, bondage galore. The second sentence may refer to a new city policy outlawing such bondage, and a mayoral inspiration to establish an area outside the city boundaries for those who wish to continue the slave/master relationship. Such people can keep their bondage.

What in the world? Where in the world?

If you know the case the student is writing about, all becomes clear. Some years ago a neighborhood group petitioned the state to permit them to develop a co-op farm on a strip of land acquired through eminent domain for a not-yet-built highway. Permission was renewed annually for thirteen years, and then the state agency faced the fact that the road was never going to be built, and turned the land over to the city. With one eye on its tax base and the other on jobs and housing, the city decided to use the strip for commercial and residential development; the farm would have to be discontinued. My students were asked to argue in favor of one of four options: keep the farm (which occupied only a small, but central, part of the land) and forgo development; keep the farm and build a smaller version of the development around it; go ahead with the development and acquire land elsewhere for the farm; go ahead with the development and get rid of the farm. All of these options had been raised in the actual town hearings.

My student was trying to describe option #3.

The members of the farm co-op had argued that their enterprise had yielded more than vegetables: it had become a field-trip destination for inner-city kids, a weapon against juvenile delinquency, an exercise opportunity for the elderly, and a vehicle for community spirit and understanding. The co-op members had developed close personal—wait for it!—bonds.

There’s a lot to be said for maintaining bonds within a community (even though in the actual case the city went with option #4), and my student was trying to say this. But I guess “bond” didn’t look like a word that could express a state of being. Hence: bondage.

This was not a second-language student inexpertly navigating a dictionary; it was a native speaker who didn’t really know her language, couldn’t discriminate between “bond” (or even “bonding”) and “bondage.”

Do you suppose she would think Of Human Bondage is a novel about healthy community relations? Would she feel that bondage was good for slaves?

No, no. What she meant was simply that the mayor, trying not to destroy the spirit of community, considered relocating the medium of their bond. But what she said inevitably evokes visions of slave-holding enclaves beyond the reach of a circumscribed government.

What a difference a suffix makes.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

10 responses to ““The mayor doesn’t want to see the bondage between the townspeople stop…”

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