When Hungarians started drafting their new constitution last year, they began with a declaration of principles. The Hungarian (no longer People's) Republic, it announced with pride, would henceforth be a "state in which the values of bourgeois democracy and democratic socialism prevail in equal measures." Bourgeois democracy! I don't know about you, but this is the first celebration of anything bourgeois that I have heard of in my 40 years. And in a constitution, no less.
One of the delightful side effects of the collapse of communism has been the resurrection of words that, under edict of the Left Bank language police, had been banished from polite society. First among these is the word bourgeois, an object of such contempt that when attached to any noun it becomes a modifier of derision.
"Bourgeois taste" as used everywhere meant -- means -- crass and crawling. "Bourgeois morality" is a way of rendering small and selfish the habits of common decency. "Petty bourgeois" is an exercise in redundancy, a compound denigration reserved for the lowest of the low, marking an entire class of people as hopelessly nasty, brutish and short.
And now those brave Hungarians -- so long cut off from the Left Bank, not yet schooled in the fashions of Western cynicism -- get their first opportunity freely to enunciate their ideals and what do they do? Embrace the bourgeois. Sophisticates of the West, take note.
Another beneficiary of the demise of communism is the word "business" and its close companions. Just to remind you how things used to be, shortly after the 1984 Bhopal chemical accident, Pravda explained to its readers the cause of such environmental disasters: "The annals of 'big business' are dotted with tragedies. The blood and sweat of millions, the flora and fauna of the planet are thrown on the altar of the 'golden calf.' "
The subordinate irony here is the opportune seizure of a Biblical metaphor by the official organ of political atheism. The major irony, given what we've now learned about the ecologicide left behind by communism, is the party's critique of big business on environmental grounds. The final irony, of course, is that Pravda no longer talks about big business as ravager and despoiler of man and nature. In fact, the Soviets talk about it now as the panacea for the ravage and despoliation of man and nature wrought by communism.
At home, "business" is enjoying something of a renaissance, too. When in the early '80s, with Reagan and Thatcher, Gilder and Kemp, capitalism began its tentative intellectual comeback, there was still enough residual anti-capitalist bias in the culture to require a substitute word. At cocktail parties, widget-makers understood the importance of introducing themselves not as businessmen and certainly not as capitalists but as entrepreneurs. The word carried a whiff of French, a hint of risk, and a slightly pre-capitalist air too genteel to be, well, bourgeois.
A decade later, now that history has vindicated capitalism, the word is coming out of the closet. It no longer has to be used with the self-conscious irony of Malcolm Forbes, "capitalist tool." The businessmen who in the '80s were reborn as entrepreneurs can now resume their old identities. Even salesmen can show their faces.
But for our newly liberated cousins in the East, this is only the beginning of the language revolution. As they celebrate their return to the pedestrian pleasures of bourgeois life, they will learn that digging their way out from under the dead hand of Leninist language is only step one. Learning to say bourgeois and business is fine. But soon it will be time to relearn capitalism's own peculiar arts of language adornment and abuse. The bending and stretching and arching of meaning is a Western sport, too. Only here it is done for reasons not of ideology but of commerce.
As a preparatory exercise, I suggest that Hungarians study, say, the capitalist art of menu manipulation. To justify asking $30 for a dish of fish (pardon: seafood), certain ornamental language is needed to cover the gap between price and product. My last time out to a tony Washington restaurant, the gilded menu offered me, for a small fortune, a "service of shrimp." To be followed by a "brace of quail." (Served, perhaps, by a winsome of waiters? To a puree of pundits? How many extravagant ways are there for saying "a bunch of"? But I digress.)
With every new world, a new lexicon. Wordsmiths of Hungary, gird yourselves. There is work to be done. It will not be long before you'll have every bistro in Budapest asking a thousand forints for a grail of goulash.