The BBC made a documentary about a man sent to prison for being the ‘most prolific rapist in British legal history’, in the words of Ian Rushton, the deputy chief crown prosecutor for North West England. To my ears, it sounds weird to call a rapist ‘prolific’. It sounds no better to refer to ‘one of the country’s most prolific serial killers’ as the Sun did last weekend.
The difficulty is that the word still carries connotations of its Latin origin prolificus, ‘capable of producing offspring’. The Latin word was in use in Britain from the 14th century, and the English form developed only in the 17th century. Swift, in his satirical Modest Proposal, averred: ‘Fish being a prolifick Dyet, there are more Children born in Roman Catholick Countries about nine Months after Lent.’
Etymology does not reveal today’s senses of a word. The late-Latin prolificus was itself derived from proles (pronounced pro-lez) meaning ‘offspring’. We don’t hear proles in English now because it has been swamped by the newer prole (rhyming with hole). Orwell introduced us to these proles in Nineteen Eighty-Four when Winston Smith notes in his diary a very good film ‘of a ship full of refugees being bombed’, with ‘a wonderful shot of a child’s arm going up up up right up into the air’. At this ‘a woman down in the prole part of the house suddenly started kicking up a fuss and shouting they didn’t oughter of showed it not in front of kids they didn’t it ain’t right’.
He was not the first to shorten proletariat to prole. In 1887 Bernard Shaw remarked in a letter: ‘We call the working men proles because that is exactly what they are.’ Proletariat had come from Latin proletarius, a Roman citizen of the lowest class, who served the state not with his property but only with his offspring.
Karl Marx saw the proletariat as a progressive working class capable of revolution. Below them came the Lumpenproletariat, whom he didn’t think of as lumpy but as ragged, from Lumpen, ‘rags’ in German. He thought such beggars, buskers and criminals a regressive force, though they were more interesting than his revolutionary cannon fodder.