areaman

“Toronto area man accused in multiple robberies.” “Minneapolis area man missing after flood.” “Calgary area man struck by pickup truck.” “Dayton area man wanted in gas-and-go.”

Boy, what is it with these area men? They all seem to be ne’er-do-wells and schlimazels.

“Area man” is such a staple in journalism that it has become a staple of the parody news source The Onion. In The Onion, he’s typically a local person of no account who has an ill-founded opinion, or thinks something is important that really isn’t, or just keeps running into the thousand natural shocks that flesh is heir to.

If there were an opposite of a superhero – not an antihero, not a villain with superpowers, but just a basic loser – Areaman would be a good name for him.

What if I told you it already was?

Well, OK, not as the proper name of an individual. But areaman, one word, meaning ‘drudge, schlimazel, self-important nobody’. In other words, a pretty close synonym for loser in its many popular senses.

To understand how this has come to be, you need to know the etymology of area. These days we use it most often to mean ‘vicinity’, and sometimes to mean ‘clear space’. What it first was – in Latin – was a clear space, but not just any clear space: it was a threshing floor. It came from Proto-Indo-European *h₂eh₂r-eyeh₂-, from a root for a threshing tool, *h₂eh₂rh₃-. And if you think those look like how an areaman laughs, well, so do I.

But that’s not the connection. An areaman is a man of the area, which is to say the threshing floor. Now, you’ve probably never done any threshing, and for that you should thank your lucky stars – and modern technology. Before threshing machines were invented, about a quarter of all agricultural labour was devoted to threshing. It would take a person an hour to thresh a bushel of wheat. For comparison, a modern combine harvester can handle several hundred bushels per hour.

So that was a lot of thrashing about for comparatively little reward. And when I say thrashing about, I mean literally, not just because it was often done by beating the wheat with flails (so it was also literally flailing about) but because threshing and thrashing were originally the same word, sort of like person and parson or vermin and varmint. Through pronunciation shifts, there came to be two versions, and the thrashing version has come to be used more broadly.

But back to areaman. The point is, it kind of sucks to be an areaman. You’re flailing and thrashing around a lot and you aren’t seeing all that much result in the big scheme of things. But… you have the floor.

Yes, you have the floor, and figuratively speaking, that means you’re the one controlling the discourse. In a conversation, the person who has the floor is the person who gets listened to, at least until someone else claims the floor. Your views are treated as worthy of attention just because you’re the one who has the attention.

Well, that’s not to say that pre-industrial agrarian labourers were fluent in discourse theory. But they did know to give enough room to an areaman, and to keep taking what he was making. They also knew to keep dumping on him – keep dumping their freshly harvested wheat, that is.

They didn’t call him an areaman, though. Sorry. I just said “What if.” And then I made the word myself. It’s a new old word. It exists now, and the etymological details are real, and it means what it does just because I said so and because, really, area man is already in use that way, to mean a loser who you still pay attention to. So there.

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