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Having a Hand in Freakdom (A Major Revision)

Leigh Alexander's picture

Having a Hand in Freakdom

In class a couple days ago we were talking about the word “freak.”  A few of my classmates presented an etymology on the word, explaining that it came from the Latin phrase lusus nature which they translated to “freak of nature,” but the thing that one must remember about Latin is that it is hardly ever that simple (“freak”).

The page they referenced on is admittedly confusing.  But what it says is not that lusus nature translates to “freak of nature” but that “freak of nature” is actually a Middle English phase that should be compared with its Latin root lusus nature. This is easily missed because it tells you, in abbreviated Laitn, cf., the abbreviation of confer or “compare,” that the phrase “freak of nature” can be compared to the original Latin, which of course, is more helpful if you knew Latin, or at least the abbreviation. I had to look it up (“CF”).

I also looked up the word lusus which I had a vague feeling I had stumbled across in my five years of Latin, but couldn’t translate.  It turns out that lusus is actually a complicated form of the very common verb ludere meaning “to play,” (“lusus”).  What’s interesting about this is that ludere in the context of lusus nature is represented in the past participle.  This means that if we were to translate the phrase literally, it would loosely translate to “having been played by nature.” However, nature is a deponent verb in Latin, meaning that though it appears to be passive in tense, it remains active.  When examined this way, we can understand lusus nature not as something that has happened, but a play or a ploy that happened, and yet continues to happen. 

This struck me as curiously similar to a person’s life.  When deemed a freak at birth, it is blamed on nature. It is something that, when you are born, has already happened to you.  It appears passive, because it is done.  And yet, being a “freak” is something people actively must deal with their entire lives, not something done or diminished. 

In modern English “freak” is defined as “a person or animal on exhibition as an example of a strange deviation from nature; monster,” (“freak”). It strikes me how different this language is from the original Latin it stemmed from.  In Latin, being deemed “freakish” was a trick or a play of nature, a meddlesome and almost whimsical pseudo-personification, but today “freakishness” is a quite literary defined as a monstrosity.

As I began to wonder what prompted this shift, I considered that it might be a path of translation, maybe a convolution of Old French or some old Germanic language prior to Freak’s grand entrance into primitive English, but there seems to be a gap from lusus nature to the first appearance of “frekes” in W. Baldwin’s Myrrour for Magistrates in 1563, (“Discover”). However, even in the context of this epic poem from 1563, “frekes” were not under the favors of Fortune (“Full”).  Why this social disconnect? What led to this apparent separation of privilege where fortune favors those not deemed freaks?

Eli Clare, a physically handicapped trans-man claims that the concept of freakishness does not arise solely from a deviation from asserted normalcy, but instead rises from the treatment of those with apparent differences in public space.  ‘Clare writes that:

“The history of freakdom extends far back into western civilization.  The court jester, the pet dwarf, the exhibition of humans in Renaissance England, the myths of giants, minotaurs,  and monsters all point to this long history which reached a pinnacle in the mid-1800s to mid-1900s.  During that century, freaks were big entertainment and big business.  Freak shows populated the United States and people flocked…to gawk at ‘freaks,’ ‘savages,’ and ‘geeks.’  They came to be educated and entertained, titillated and repulsed.  They came to have their ideas of normal and abnormal, superior and inferior, their sense of self, confirmed and strengthened.  And gawk they did,” (85-86).

Clare writes that this exhibition of so-called “freaks” or those deemed “abnormalities,” “exaggerated [the] divide between the ‘normal’ and ‘Other,’” with the “Other” being those who were made to feel freakish for somehow, intentionally or naturally, deviating from the standards of normality set by societal conventions (Clare 85).   The beginnings of the freak show brought about the distinct difference and physical separation of the “freak” from the onlooker. In physically separating people into those observing others and those being observed, a drastic power differential was established. Those inside the ring, on the stage, in the spotlight, were exposed to be gawked at for the pleasure of those on the outside, the emotional harm of one sect being used as personal enjoyment for the other.

The origin of “freak” had been determined by the hand of nature, and its capricious will to deviate one’s being slightly from the majority of those around them, however, after man’s establishment of the freak show, the “play” is no longer nature’s on man, but man’s against his own kind. What created this divide no longer seems to be an entirely linguistic issue—the connotation of the phrases of freakdom were not changed by accents, languages or letters, what caused this shift was the poor treatment of people who were powerless in fighting another groups’ exploitations of them. 

In creating an environment where there is a set and clear power-differential, where one’s suffering is for the sole benefit of another’s entertainment, we create an environment not of entertainment, but of demoralization and eventual destruction.  Whether this display of peoples’ differences is a ticketed event preformed within a ring or is a judgmental glace cast across a busy sidewalk, our conscious and unconscious attitudes towards people’s differences should not establish any feelings of superiority because in such cases the rise of one group can only be attributed the reciprocal descent of the other.



Works Cited

Clare, Eli. Exile and Pride: disability, queerness, and liberation. Cambridge, MA: SouthEnd Press, 1999. Print.

"CF.", n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. <>.

"Discover the Story of English More than 600,000 Words, over a Thousand Years." Home : Oxford English Dictionary. Oxford University Press, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. <>.

Faulkner, William. "Banquet Speech*." William Faulkner. N.p., n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2014. <>.

"Freak.", n.d. Web. 26 Sept. 2014. <>.

"Full Text of "Mirror for Magistrates, in Five Parts"" Full Text of "Mirror for Magistrates, in Five Parts" N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. <>.

"Latin Search Results For: Lusus." Latin Definitions For: Lusus (Latin Search). Latdict, n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. <>.

When A Typical Latin Verb Is Presented To You In Vocabulary Lists, You Will Almost Always See. Amô Amâre Amâvî Amâtus (n.d.): n. pag. St. Louis University. Web. 3 Oct. 2014. <>.

"William Whitaker's Words." William Whitaker's Words. N.p., n.d. Web. 03 Oct. 2014. <>.