Part IV of Gulliver’s Travels contains the most scathing and important satirical critique of humanity in the book. Swift makes his point both by presenting the Yahoos of his imagination and by leading the reader to observe the all-too-real humanity all around us. In between these two groups and setting the standard for the judgment are the Houyhnhnms (in my head, I pronounce it “hooey-hinnums”), a race of intelligent horses.
Yahoo is one of the words that Swift introduced into our language; unlike Gulliver and Lilliputian, though, the word Yahoo, when it comes up in conversation, most likely raises no thoughts of Jonathan Swift in the minds of either speaker or listener. It usually just indicates an actual human who is stupid, crude, or out of control. Its acceptance in the language without ties to its source shows just how successful Swift was in getting his point across. In the novel, the Yahoos are humans without the power of reason. (Okay, they also have a streak of hair down their spines, like the mane of a horse, but otherwise, they’re human.) And it turns out that humans deprived of rational thought are stupid, crude, and out of control. To top it off, they’re possessive hoarders, and their self-centered, brutish squabbles over their possessions are especially cruel, even when compared with those of other animals.
The Houyhnhnms are just as amazed at finding Gulliver as you or I would be at stumbling across Mr. Ed, and they only very slowly come to accept him without having to show constant caution. But even after getting used to him, they find it hard to believe that whole nations of rational Yahoos live elsewhere in the world. So they ask Gulliver to tell them about home. And when he describes war, lawsuits, and crime, the noble equines determine that humans only misuse reason to indulge their natural cruelty and possessiveness. What should lead to peace and happiness, they tell Gulliver, humans apply only to selfish aims and so bring misery upon themselves.
If this reading plan of great books is to do me any good, I have to apply the lessons they teach. In this case, I have to measure myself by Swift’s yardstick. And in doing so, I have to admit that I spend a lot of time every day thinking and reasoning about how to serve myself – whether physically, mentally, emotionally, or even spiritually – with very little thought of others. So, while the word works well as an insult or descriptive epithet in certain cases, in reality, which of us is not a Yahoo?