GRE Vocab – Country Mouse, City Mouse


Arthur Rackham’s classic illustration of Æsop’s fable.

In this GRE Vocab post, we’ll discuss words that have to do with the country and the city. Comparisons between country life and city life have probably been around since urban centers first arose some 10,000 years ago (give or take a few), and one of the most famous examples can be found in Æsop’s fable of the Town Mouse and the Country Mouse, reproduced in Joseph Jacobs’ 1894 translation below:

Now you must know that a Town Mouse once upon a time went on a visit to his cousin in the country. He was rough and ready, this cousin, but he loved his town friend and made him heartily welcome. Beans and bacon, cheese and bread, were all he had to offer, but he offered them freely. The Town Mouse rather turned up his long nose at this country fare, and said: “I cannot understand, Cousin, how you can put up with such poor food as this, but of course you cannot expect anything better in the country; come you with me and I will show you how to live. When you have been in town a week you will wonder how you could ever have stood a country life.” No sooner said than done: the two mice set off for the town and arrived at the Town Mouse’s residence late at night. “You will want some refreshment after our long journey,” said the polite Town Mouse, and took his friend into the grand dining-room. There they found the remains of a fine feast, and soon the two mice were eating up jellies and cakes and all that was nice. Suddenly they heard growling and barking. “What is that?” said the Country Mouse. “It is only the dogs of the house,” answered the other. “Only!” said the Country Mouse. “I do not like that music at my dinner.” Just at that moment the door flew open, in came two huge mastiffs, and the two mice had to scamper down and run off. “Good-bye, Cousin,” said the Country Mouse, “What! going so soon?” said the other. “Yes,” he replied; “Better beans and bacon in peace than cakes and ale in fear.”

Gustave Doré’s depiction of the interrupted feast in the city.

While the moral of Æsop’s original fable was that riches aren’t worth risking one’s life for, when Beatrix Potter (of Peter Rabbit fame) retold it in 1918, she changed the story up so that the moral would be that tastes differ: some people prefer country life while others prefer city life. This is perhaps the most familiar version presented to children today, with its emphasis on tolerance rather than mortal terror.

One word that perhaps illustrates the city mouse’s self-image as a suave sophisticate is urbane. Urbane means having the polish and suavity regarded as characteristic of sophisticated social life in major cities. It came to English from Latin by way of French in the 1530s, when it originally simply meant urban. The sense of elegance and sophistication only came later in the 1620s. In many ways, rustic can be considered the opposite of urbane. Rustic can mean literally of, pertaining to, or living in the country; or it can mean simple, artless, or unsophisticated; it can even mean uncouth, rude, or boorish. It entered English in the 1440s from the Latin rusticus, meaning “open land or country.” The noun for the quality of being rustic is rusticity, but the noun rustication means something a little different. The verb to rusticate refers to the going to live in the countryside, but in the U.K. it can also refer to being expelled from an educational institution, thanks to the remarkable English talent for euphemism.  Back in the old days, when the sons of the English gentry came of age they would leave their family estates in the countryside to study at Oxford or Cambridge for university. If they did poorly, they would be “rusticated” – sent back home to their country estates – as punishment.

17th century French painter Claude Lorrain was famous for his pastoral subjects.

Lest one get the impression that all city words mean something good while all country words mean something bad, it is worth noting that there are also plenty of words that idealize the countryside, such as bucolic, idyllic, and pastoral. Pastoral means having the simplicity, charm, serenity, or other characteristics generally attributed to rural areas, and is often used to describe works of art, music, or literature that idealize the countryside. When it originally entered English from French, it simply meant having to do with shepherds; the words “pastoral” and “pasture” both derive from the Latin root pastor (which, incidentally, is also the root of the word pastor – pastor originally meant “shepherd”). An idyll is a poem or prose composition, usually describing pastoral scenes or events or any charmingly simple episode, appealing incident, or the like. If something is suitable for or suggestive of an idyll by virtue of being charmingly simple or rustic, then it is idyllic. The word idyll first entered English around the year 1600 from the Latin idyllium, although the genre of poetry goes back millennia to ancient Greece, where such poems were referred to as eidyllion. Bucolic means pastoral or of, pertaining to, or suggesting an idyllic rural life. It attained its current English form in the 1610s, although it existed as “bucolical” from the 1520s. It is derived from the Latin bucolicus, which is in turn derived from the Ancient Greet buokolikos, which came from the Greek work buokolos, which literally meant “cowherd.”

The word bourgeois, on the other hand, is a citified word with a somewhat negative connotation. As an adjective, it can simply mean conventional, middle-class, or even materialistic; as a noun it can refer to a member of the middle class or a person whose political, economic, and social opinions are believed to be determined mainly by concern for property values and conventional respectability. It derives from the French word bourgeois, which referred to the middle classes from the 1560s on. It in turn derives from the Old French borjois, which simply meant “town dweller.” Ultimately, the root of this word was the Frankish burg, which meant “town,” and continues to be used in modern German. For a thoroughly bourgeois and kitschy song and dance routine from the 60s further explaining the difference between urban and rural, see the video below! (Also, this is totally how my parents discuss their retirement plans.)

For one final pair of country/city words, consider agrarian and oppidan. The word agrarian means rural or agricultural (although it can also have more technical meanings related to agriculture and agricultural law). It entered English in the 1610s from the French loy agrarienne, or “agrarian law,” a term which was adopted from the Roman lex agraria. Interestingly, scholars believe that agrarian and acre share the same Proto-Indo-European root, agros, which originally meant “field.” Oppidan is a rather unusual word that is simply a synonym of urban. It entered English in the 1530s from the Latin oppid, which means town. While this word is rather uncommon, it’s a good one to save for when the dukes and maharajas invite you to tea – it’s sure to impress!

Always remember, if you want that extra edge on the competition on test day, you can always study with GRE experts like me at Test Masters. Until then, keep up the good work and happy studying!


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