The Grammarphobia Blog

Why did the Emperor of Russia rusticate?

Q: In my dotage, I’ve finally gotten around to reading The Innocents Abroad. A few things jumped out at me. Spelling differences: “staid” for “stayed,” “ancles” for “ankles,” etc. And strange usages, especially a reference to the Emperor of Russia “rusticating” at a watering hole. I know rusticate as an architectural term, but what was the Emperor doing at that watering hole?

A: One of the pleasures of reading 19th-century writing—British as well as American—is watching language change from generation to generation.

The spellings you found in The Innocents Abroad, Mark Twain’s 1869 travel book, show just how fluid the conventions of English orthography can be.

Usage, too, changes over time. In 150 years, someone reading a 2011 newspaper will no doubt find a lot that looks odd, just as Twain’s use of “rusticating” looked odd to you.

We don’t use the verb “rusticate” much these days. But in the 18th and 19th centuries it had several meanings, some of which are still alive today, if seldom heard. 

For instance, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, to “rusticate” meant (and still means) to “stay or sojourn in  the country,” as the Emperor did.

Here’s an example from an 1886 letter by the English artist Charles Samuel Keene: “I went and smoked a pipe with Challoner the other evening, and heard from Mrs. C that you were going to rusticate on some riverside.”

And in British usage to be “rusticated” meant (and still does) to be dismissed from a university for a specified time as punishment.

Here it is in Trollope’s 1858 novel Doctor Thorne: “This son had been first rusticated from Oxford and then expelled.”

“Rusticated” also meant “countrified” or “rendered rustic in manners.”

In Washington Irving’s 1822 novel Bracebridge Hall, for example, a squire was “rusticated a little by living almost entirely on his estate.”

And, as you say, the term is still used in the architectural sense of giving masonry a rustic appearance by marking it with sunk joints or roughened surfaces.

John Ruskin, in The Stones of Venice (1851), alludes to this technique when he asks whether “Nature rusticates her foundations,” and answers himself by saying “She does rusticate sometimes” by crumbling foundations and leaving ripple marks.

A variation on this sense of the word has made its way into the art world. Since the 1930s, potters have used it to describe pottery deliberately roughened to look rustic.

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