This past week I spotted a little error in someone else’s text: precancerous legions.
To me, that seems almost fitting. I’ll explain. My first encounter with the word legion was in Exshaw, a small town in Alberta at the entrance to the Rockies. It’s a one-industry town – cement plant – and there was (perhaps still is) only one place in town that served alcoholic beverages: the legion. So when I was a kid in the 1970s, the “leejun” (which is how I first thought it was spelled) was a smoky place where adults went to drink. Precancerous indeed!
My next encounter with the term was in French foreign legion. At that point I still assumed a legion was a drinking establishment. It was therefore a little confusing to see it referring to a lot of guys out in the middle of the desert. But, hey, Frenchmen in the desert? They must be thirsty. (And, as we all know, the French smoke a lot.)
As I read Asterix comics, I became aware of the Roman legion as well. It was clear that it wasn’t a drinking organization. Even if legion never lost its overtone of spilled beer and stale cigarette smoke (what one smelled on the one day in a year that kids were let into the legion – Remembrance Day, November 11), it acquired this military sense with its derivative form legionary.
And then there was the line that I saw first in a Captain Marvel comic, when he was confronted with a demonic villain who was one but many (and thus had to be defeated with a superspeed group smite with the superfist): My name is legion, for we are many. Again, I really didn’t get that. I may have understood by that time that legion could refer to a bunch of army guys, but I still wasn’t quite getting it. After all, in Exshaw, there was (is) only one legion, though I guess many guys went there for beer.
And no, I didn’t at first get the Biblical reference at all. (It’s when Jesus is confronting a demon who has possessed a man, and Jesus asks the demon its name. Subsequently, Jesus drives it – them – into a herd of pigs, which throw themselves into the lake. Lemmings schmemmings.)
And then there was legionnaire’s disease, a deadly lung disease that burst on the scene (at a legion convention) when I still wasn’t completely sorted out on what legionnaires were. It has imparted further senses of baleful sickness to legion.
So now, although I am aware of the word’s origin – it referred to a body of army in Roman times numbering from 3000 to 6000 soldiers (depending on the time), and came from legere, “choose” (as in conscript) – and its current sense, its dominant taste for me is nothing like religion or allegiance or collegiate or belligerant, even though all have some semantic as well as phonetic echoes with it (of the four, only collegiate is etymologically related). It does have some taste of lesion, thanks to puns such as foreign lesions.
But it’s still first of all leejun for me, with its hint of gin and the jaw-jutting “j” and the louche leer in lee. It’s the place with the IITYWYBMAB sign above the bar, the place where I read my Remembrance Day poem to the assembled veterans and other adults, my voice no match for the precancerous miasma of played-out Players and doomed du Mauriers matched with mopped-up Blue and Canadian.