Citizen and Subject

While writing about the word citizen, via denizen recently, I naturally thought of the word citizen in contrast to subject. Naturally, when describing people, they’re quite different.

As we saw recently, a citizen has certain rights, whereas a subject (even if they have similar rights), is defined by being under the power of a ruler such as a monarch or dictator. Basically, they’re clearly marked as being in a lower position than their ruler, and subject to their power, unlike a president who is defined as being elected and therefore serving their people (which of course they’re always humble enough to acknowledge).

I’ve never liked the idea of being a subject, and have always considered myself lucky to have been born in a republic. I did actually live in two different kingdoms for about a year each, though I was never officially a subject in either. I find the idea of monarchy a bit absurd really. Still having actual kings and queens in the 21st century, who get to be heads of state just because their parents were, strikes me as ridiculous. Though maybe if I’d been born in a monarchy I might not feel so strongly.

I did though, discover a few years ago that very few people living in the United Kingdom while I was there were subjects either. In 1983, the British Nationality Act came into force, which meant that every citizen of the UK and its colonies became either a British citizen, a British Dependent Territories citizen, or a British Overseas citizen. The term British subject ceased being an official designation for British citizens, though it’s still used sometimes when referring to the Queen and the British people at the same time.

Funnily enough, there are still some people who can be officially described as British subjects, and they’re Irish. Ireland officially declared itself a republic in April 1949, and people born in what’s now the Republic of Ireland before that date are officially British subjects if they didn’t claim Irish citizenship (which in fairness, most of them did). I came across this nice message from King George VI to Irish president Seán T. O’Ceallaigh on the declaration:

I send you my sincere good wishes on this day, being well aware of the neighbourly links which hold the people of the Republic of Ireland in close association with my subjects of the United Kingdom. I hold in most grateful memory the services and sacrifices of the men and women of your country who rendered gallant assistance to our cause in the recent war and who made a notable contribution to our victories. I pray that every blessing may be with you today and in the future.


An interesting contrast between the people of the Republic of Ireland, and the subjects of the UK. I wonder if he considered referring to the citizens of the Republic of Ireland, but felt that might emphasise the citizen/subject contrast too much.

You might be wondering why we use the word subject with many different meanings. School subjects, for example. Well, let’s have a quick look at the etymology of the word. It comes from the Latin subiectus (lying under), made up of sub (under, like in submarine), and the verb iacere (to throw).

When subject first entered English, it was used to refer to people, and there’s a logic to that as they’re under their rulers who are at the top of the system. Its use to refer to something you study or discuss is a shortening of subject matter. I guess the logic behind that is that the matter is under your control or even literally under your gaze as you study it.

The most interesting use of subject to me, of course, is as a grammatical term. The subject of a sentence is the agent that controls the verb in a sentence. The object of the sentence, if it has one, is the agent acted upon by the subject. Looking at how we use subject in other ways, its always felt a little odd to me how we use the word grammatically, bcause it feels like it would make more sense to use it like we use object, for the agent in the more passive situation.

The reason we use subject in this way is because it comes from the Latin subjectum (grammatical subject), and in this case we’re looking at it from the position of an outside observer of the sentence, who’s more interested in the agent performing the action, and this is therefore the subject of their attention.

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