This is a word I’m seeing more often in the wild these days. Indeed, it’s come to the point where, this past summer, I saw a retweet by novelist William Gibson (@GreatDismal) of a plea to ban feral from public discourse.
That’s quite a step up for a word that, not so long ago, was seen almost exclusively in comparatively elevated (or wanting-to-seem-elevated) discourse on cats, dogs, and horses that were undomesticated, and sometimes on a child that had not been raised in human conditions. Now it expresses fury and fuels fear. It has an insidious sound to it, especially if you say it like “fear’ll” – it slips in softly like a weasel or some vermin, with that high /i/ vowel, wheedling or knife-like or perhaps a seeping steam, and then it rolls on the tongue, from one liquid to another. If you say it like Ferrell (as in Will), it’s a bit more held back, with a taste of fair and an overtone of a comedian (or two, if you think back to Mike Farrell, B.J. Hunnicutt in M*A*S*H). But it still has fur and fangs.
And what does it mean? And how is it used? The Oxford English Dictionary definition is “wild, untamed” and “of, pertaining to, or resembling a wild beast; brutal, savage.” But often it is used in a narrower sense, the one Charles Darwin gives in his glossary (actually written by W.S. Dallas) to The Origin of Species: “Having become wild from a state of cultivation or domestication.” A good example is this quote from a Globe and Mail article: “Wolgan has implemented an experimental ‘feral-free’ zone on the property in partnership with the University of Western Sydney, aimed at protecting indigenous wildlife from the encroachment of feral animals such as dingoes, cats and fallow deer.”
This is the use of feral. It is not enough to say wild; that could be something that has always been untamed, or it could be simply ungoverned behaviour; moreover, it is often used as a term of approbation, and collocates with such things as night and party. Now think of spending a feral night at a feral party. That’s actually frightening, isn’t it?
Similar issues come up with beastly: it’s a blunt word, brutal, without that direct hint of fur in feral that may make you think of an animal but may also make you think of the rough down on the fleering upper lip of a mid-adolescent boy with sloe eyes who is blocking your path and slowly slicing the air with a knife. And beastly is a term of disapprobation for boorish manners or unpleasantness: “The weather has been positively beastly, and so have you.” Now try “The weather has been positively feral, and so have you.” Oh… my…
Other choices also fall in different directions by sound and sense. Police brutality versus police ferality, or a brutal assault versus a feral assault; savage criticism versus feral criticism, and does music have charms to soothe the feral breast? No, there is something unnervingly free about feral, free and fearsome.
It is unlikely to be flavoured by the fact that there is a homonym feral that means “deadly, fatal funereal” – pretty much nobody sees or uses that one anymore. (It comes from Latin feralis “pertaining to rites for the dead”, whereas the feral we know and increasingly love comes from fera “beast”.) No, it is the echoes and phonaesthetics of the word, probably, but also the fear that comes when confronted with an invasion of the wild, a failure of culture and civilization, an erasure of the things that let us sleep securely at night. Not just an erasure – a rejection.
And so it is that during the London riots, it was the term feral that was used. A clothing shop owner spoke of the “feral rats” – youths as young as 13 – who looted her business. The justice secretary of England, Kenneth Clarke, decried “a feral underclass, cut off from the mainstream in everything but its materialism.” And the word has been in something of a vogue ever since – though, to be fair, its usage has been increasing steadily for some time, doubling from 1960 to 1980 and almost doubling again from 1980 to now, if Google’s ngrams are to be believed.
So what are we seeing as feral now? There are certainly also references to feral cats, doves, pigs, and so on – the literal sense has not died off; if anything, it’s had a boost. But the figurative use is making the cocktail circuit, like some celebrated feral human discovered in the wilds and now learning to eat caviar and hold a champagne flute. From the New York Times, I see Maureen Dowd, on November 5, referring to “one of New York’s most feral anthropological tableaus: the biannual Manolo Blahnik sample sale.” On November 8, Brian Siebert, reviewing a dance piece, referred to choreography “remarkable for its amalgam of cold formality and feral wildness” – note how feral wildness somehow does not seem redundant to the writer? And A.O. Scott, in a review of the movie A Dangerous Method on November 22, described one character as “a feral and charming emanation of pure id, an imp of the Freudian perverse”. Now a person can be feral, it seems, simply by being oral-retentive. Feral becomes the sound of the belt and trousers of civilized restraint being undone and let drop. How feral, darling… let’s go loot some more caviar blinis and do things we can’t be held responsible for.