Have you seen the movie Spartacus? The arch-villain of the piece, played by Laurence Olivier, is Marcus Licinius Crassus. Like Spartacus, he was a real person. In fact, he was a good friend of Julius Caesar. He was a powerful general, but also a very, very rich businessman – so rich, it’s almost a wonder people don’t say rich as Crassus rather than rich as Croesus. His wealth equated to about $170 billion in modern terms. He was known for his avarice, but he was mainly a savvy businessman with a knack for buying things that were undervalued. He got many properties at fire sale prices – literally: if your building was on fire, he would offer to buy it on the spot – for a price that took into consideration its current state, of course – and if you sold, he would immediately bring in his private fire brigade to sort things out. But he was also a genial glad-hander, someone who greeted everyone by name in the street. Unfortunately for him, he felt his life wasn’t complete without a great military victory. Well, he got a defeat instead, in the course of which his life attained completion – or conclusion, anyway.

So is this the sort of guy you would call “fatty”? Well, if his father was Publius Licinius “Rich Dude” Fatty, then, yeah, you would call this guy Marcus Licinius Fatty (also given the nickname “Rich Dude” – well, in Latin, Dives.) You see, crassus is Latin for “fat” – think of gras, its modern French descendant. And why not? If you eat food that’s fatty you call it rich, no?

And whatever you may think of Crassus and his behaviour, and his type, however crass you may find him (and, for that matter, however Monty-Pythonish his name may seem), he didn’t actually inspire the word crass. It came straight from the common Latin. It also mean “solid” and “thick” in Latin, you see. So it was an easy borrowing into English for it to mean “gross, stupid, dense, unrefined.”

But does the word fit its meaning? It’s not a dull or heavy-sounding word; the stop and fricative are voiceless. But it’s capable of communicating a certain crudity nonetheless, from craw to ass. Francophones may think of cracher, “spit”; English echoes include crash and all those grabbing, tooth-grinding, growling words such as crap, crank, cramp, crack, crab… but note that there is also craft and, for that matter, class and grass. This word could have kept better company and it would have fit in. Still, its crash and its blaring brass seem to match the bad manners and the blatant avarice. After all, the words it most commonly modifies include commercialism and materialism.

And all of us who are just out looking for opportunities to get more money – like anyone would, because who doesn’t want more money? – well, wouldn’t we, when confronted with our cupidity, look up, surprised, and say, “Crass? Us?” Yes, mark us so; we’re thick as thieves.


I thank Roberto De Vido for suggesting crass and Crassus.


One response to “crass

  1. Pingback: The Niam-Niam Parrot Would Be a Good Spy | Coffee and Creatures

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