The word “civity” is not new. The Oxford English Dictionary lists “civity” as an archaic, no-longer-used word for “city.”
“Civity” calls us back to the essence of “city,” which originally meant the people.
The people of a city.
Civity comes from the Latin civis, meaning citizen, and civitas, meaning the body of citizens. Other English words in the civis-civitas family that we hear frequently today include citizen, citizenship, city, civic, civil, and civility. Surely somewhere in this assortment there is a word to serve the purpose! Why resurrect Civity?
Citizen and citizenship have come to be limited by their legal definitions. A citizen is a person with legal citizenship and papers to prove it.
City, too, although often used to describe an urban area comprised of many legal entities, has a precise and delimited legal meaning: a geographically defined municipal corporation chartered by a state. In both usages, city refers to the collective, the whole.
Civity—the people of a city—connects the individuals to the collective while also reminding us that the collective is made up of individuals. At the same time, Civity is agnostic as to the legal status of the people—not only in the national sense but in the legal domicile sense. The “people of the city” includes the people who live in the city, those who work in the city, even the people who pass through the city. All of these people make up the city, and so they are all the people of the city.
Day in and day out, these people of the city meet each other on the street, at the grocery store, in office corridors, at restaurants. They drive through neighborhoods, get on buses, encounter each other at picnic shelters in parks. And, increasingly, the people we brush by on our way to school or work or sit next to in a coffee shop are people we don’t know. Many of them are also people who are different from us in some socially significant way: They are “other.”
How we regard these everyday “others” matters, because how we regard them affects how we act toward them. And how we act toward them, how we act toward each other, can either create a vicious cycle of suspicion, distrust, alienation, and division or a virtuous cycle of curiosity, trust, belonging, and connection.
Civic is too narrow. Civic, like citizen and citizenship, homes in on law and governance. Civic is citizens petitioning the government or banding together to address issues of public concern. Civic doesn’t embrace the everyday, the citizen-to-citizen moments.
Civil and civility do embrace the everyday, but they highlight the action rather than the intention. Civil and civility are saying “please” and “thank you” because Mom or Dad says you have to. The action is important, but the ultimate goal is internalizing an attitude of respect and appreciation.
Civity names that underlying goal—the goal of respect and recognition of humanity—for everyday encounters with the “others” with whom we share our worlds.
Environmental artist Marlene Creates lives in Canada. Her book Brickle, Nish, and Knobbly: A Newfoundland Treasury of Terms for Ice and Snow uses photographs and definitions to describe the different kinds of ice and snow that appear in the Newfoundland landscape. “Brickle ice is ice that is brittle and easily broken” (p. 32). Nish is “very thin ice that can be easily broken” (p. 72). “Knobbly ice is rough, choppy, and lumpy” (p. 74). These are just a few of the words that describe ice and snow: sishy ice, dwy, ice-candles, clumpers, quarr, ballicattered, ice-blink, pummy, lolly, and more.
This spill of words captures variations of frozen water that take particular forms or occur under particular conditions. The precision of each word demands attention. Though I have never been to Newfoundland, the words help the winter landscape come into focus.
Naming Civity calls our attention to a set of interactions that most of us engage in routinely, as a matter of habit, but using only a small part of our consciousness. Naming Civity invites us to notice our actions in these encounters and to consider how these actions contribute to the goals we have for our communities.
Intention follows attention. Attention to ice and snow allows people in Newfoundland to navigate winter with both appreciation and safety. Attention to Civity allows us to navigate our everyday encounters with “others” in a way that nudges us all toward respect and reciprocity.
Palma Strand is the co-founder of Civity, an organization that helps community leaders strategically transform their communities to understand and celebrate differences - across race, class, culture, and politics. Learn more about Civity here.