The Savage and the Yahoo

Savages and Yahoo’s– Are they just one in the same?

            Part 4 of Jonathan Swift’s novel Gulliver’s Travels covers a vast array of themes about the human race, our society and the treatment of others. Even thought it takes place in a land of a horse culture named Houyhmhnms and the disfigured human called the Yahoo, it calls to question a lot about our practices and ourselves. The story, to me, is filled with ethnocentric thought and the failure to open ones mind to new and different experiences. (I apologize for the small rant). Ethnocentrism is the belief that ones own culture is superior then the one you are currently in. Within the story both Gulliver and the Master of the Houyhmhnms seem to be under the ethnocentric spell. What caught my attention besides the theme are the word choices by Swift when regarding the unknown:

  • Savage
  • Yahoo

These words seemed very deliberate and repetitious during all of part 4 in Gulliver’s Travels. Did Swift pick these specific words to get his point across? Are then words to highlight ones feelings to someone or something that is different? Does “savage” and “yahoo” have hidden meanings about those who are called such names? Oddly enough, yes.

Savage is a word primarily use by Gulliver. After Gulliver regains his wits from being banished off his own ship and washing up on land, his first choice of action is “ deliver himself to the first savages [he] should meet” (pg. 2588). The word “savage” seemed so derogatory to me and I did not know why. I found I could not define it properly and therefore had to look into it further. After looking it up in the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), “savage” means:

“ Uncivilized; existing in the lowest stage of culture.”

Yeah, definitely not the most flattering word to describe someone I would have to say. Gulliver, however, seems to use this word often within the first 4 chapters of part 4. To be exact, 6 times within those chapters. While Gulliver used the word “savage” to refer to anyone he believes is beneath him or who is unknown to him; the master uses “Yahoo” to do the same. Yahoo is a word we all yell during the two-week period of Stampede but I am sure we may have to rethink that one.

“Yahoo” is a word first used by Jonathan Swift and its meaning has evolved and Oxford English Dictionary cites:

“A human being of a degraded or bestial type.”

“A person lacking cultivation or sensibility.”

Again, we all should possibly take a stand and not yell “yahoo!” during Stampede next summer. Just a thought.

The master does use it quite frequently as well, and goes much further then Gulliver by naming a full race of beings “Yahoos”.  For him a Yahoo does not possess “civility and cleanliness” nor are they “a rational creature” (pg. 2599). They are lacking what the Houyhnhnms are “Perfection of Nature”(pg. 2595). Gulliver might not go as far with calling himself and his race “perfection” but the word “savage” carries the same undertone.

With one character being an intelligent doctor/ship captain, and the other being a horse in a land of Houyhnhnms, their word choices make them one of the same. “Savage” and “yahoo” are not different when looking into the meaning, both words are used degrade the subject they are taking about. Jonathan Swift’s words were deliberate and definitely get the point across. Both the master and Gulliver have different views on what is civil and correct within a culture. However, as Swift points out with these words: no matter what we may call others who seem different, does it make us and our society look better?


Work Cited

Swift, Jonathan. “Gulliver’s Travels.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. Ed. Stephen Greenblatt. 9th ed. Vol. C. New York: W. W. Norton &, 2012. Print.

This entry was posted in 2: Close Reading, {G8}. Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to The Savage and the Yahoo

  1. bkmilne says:

    Although this may not relate to Gulliver’s travels, I quiet enjoyed how you mentioned Stampede. Through the entirety of book 4 it was all I could think about.
    The fact that even today we yell “Yahoo” seems to be an effective equalizer of our culture. For 2 weeks of the summer, we are allowed to act “low class”, because lets be honest, we aren’t acting like high class and modest human beings.
    The fact that Swift uses the term “Yahoo” in the same way Gulliver uses “Savage” is similar to the idea of our modern culture allowing our -more or less- crazy behaviour during stampede, continually yelling “yahoo” (even though most people would not even be aware of its historical use)

  2. Ali Bayne says:

    I completely agree with the comment above. Referring to a ‘yahoo’ as “A person lacking cultivation or sensibility,” seems quite appropriate for the drunken, rowdy cowboy-wannabes who flood the city around Stampede time. But the question I have is: Are we still classified as Yahoos (in Swift’s sense of the word) after we’re done partaking in Stampede festivities? Is acting like a ‘brute’ (a word used just as much as ‘savage’ in part four) justifiable if we succumb to such behaviour only on occasion? You say that the word ‘savage’ is derogatory, but if we can only be defined by such a word when we’re just having fun, is that really just part of what makes us ‘people’?

    Perhaps Gulliver wanted to remain with the Houyhmhnms in order to purify himself of basic human nature and achieve a state of higher moral being. Of course, the flaws of his species he describes to his Master are quite a bit more horrendous than getting rowdy at Nashville North (for most, hopefully).

Leave a Reply