It’s not a word that you’re likely to overhear in your local pub or read in your daily newspaper. The source is classical Greek banausikos, relating to artisans (from baunos, a forge), though in English its meaning has been influenced by classical Greek attitudes as much as its etymology. Something banausic is mundane or functional. It might seem to be a relative of banal, but that’s from an Old French word of Germanic origin relating to compulsory feudal service.
Greeks of the ancient world lived in a stratified society, with a relatively small population of male citizens being supported by the labour of women, slaves and foreigners. For citizens, intellectual pursuits — including logic, rhetoric and philosophy — were key to an active part in public life as well as being satisfying in their own right. Activities that involved physical labour, such as making things to earn a living, were looked on as degrading banausic necessities. Even learning to play a musical instrument was thought by Aristotle to be a banausic occupation.
The English word was coined by George Smythe in an article about the second Earl Grey, who had just died:
After 1812, and when the worse portion of the Tories got enthroned in the supremacy, when the Banausic principle (we must coin a word from the most expressive of languages to express all its intense vulgarity) began to obtain.
Oxford and Cambridge Review, Aug. 1845.
Mr Smythe’s snobbish comment on the banausic principle (basically non-intellectual pursuits such as manufacturing and earning money) would have delighted the citizenry of ancient Greece. His view was shared by others: in 1901, John Churton Collins described teaching as a banausic occupation, “the one instinct in [teachers] which is not quite banausic being the conscientious thoroughness with which they impart what they have been taught.”
It has never quite lost its snobbish undertones, but it has shifted sense slightly to refer to the utilitarian or materialistic aspects of everyday life.
Aristocratic disdain for “trade” is a commonplace of literature, the latter regarded as tainted by the low and banausic nature of what it involves.
Ideas That Matter, by A C Grayling, 2009.