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Politician: Compliment or Curse?

Ammon Shea recently spent a year of his life reading the OED from start to finish. Over the next few months he will be posting weekly blogs about the insights, gems, and thoughts on language that came from this experience. His book, Reading the OED, has been published by Perigee, so go check it out in your local bookstore. In the post below Ammon looks at the connotations of the word “politician”.

I like to revel in my own ignorance. This is admittedly not a very difficult thing to do – I am constantly discovering things that I don’t know. These previously unfound things are interesting, and I am glad to learn of them, but the real joy comes in discovering not just something new, but rather something old that I’ve been wrong about for years.

I was given a chance to find out how wrong I was about something recently when a woman with the splendidly improbable name of Kiwi Carlisle wrote to me about one of her pet peeves: “politicians who feel it’s appropriate to insult one another by using the word “politician“.” In wondering why they would so describe their opponent she asks “Are they stupid, deluded by their advisers, or simply hypocritical?” In the hopes of finding out which of the three it was I began looking though some dictionaries.

My assumption, based on absolutely nothing aside of the vague yet powerful feeling I often have that tells me that I am right about something, was that politician is a word that formerly described a noble, patrician sort of fellow, and that this word has recently been actively debased by people who are intentionally misusing it as a description. I may not disagree with the notion that politicians are inherently worthy of contempt, but I was fairly sure that this particular insult was a recent addition to the definition. I was, of course, completely wrong in my assumption.

According to the OED, the earliest use of politician is defined as: “1. a. A schemer or plotter; a shrewd, sagacious, or crafty person. In later use also (esp. U.S. derogatory, influenced by sense A. 2b): a self-interested manipulator, whose behaviour is likened to that of a professional politician.” The first citation is from George Whetstone’s 1586 The English Myrror.

The OED does provide a number of other senses for the word, and when we arrive at 2b we find the one that I think most people commonly draw to mind when asked what a politician is: “A person who is keenly interested in practical politics, or who engages in party politics or political strife; now spec. one who is professionally involved in politics as the holder of or a candidate for an elected office.” But even under this definition there is a note that states “In the 17th and 18th centuries, usually with opprobrious overtones.”

Given that the OED stated that this word was derogatory especially in the U.S. I thought to look in some of the dictionaries and reference works that deal specifically with American usage. I turned first to Mitford Mathews’ grand and magisterial A Dictionary of Americanisms, one of the greatest works on that subject. It was no help at all, providing no definition for politician other than “the white-eyed vireo” (which is a type of bird). However, the other American dictionaries I looked at (The Century, Worcester’s, and a few 19th century Webster’s) all seemed to list the word with some pejorative connotation.

I then reasoned that this word was initially considered derogatory, but had gone through some magic amelioration and come to now usually describe a well-respected member of our country’s elite. After all, don’t we often hear of children wanting to grow up to be the nation’s president? And isn’t the president just another politician? A quick glance at Mencken’s American Language set me straight on that: “From Shakespeare onward, to be sure, there have been Englishmen who have sneered at the politician, but the term is still used across the water in a perfectly respectful manner to indicate a more or less dignified statesman. In this country it means only a party manipulator, a member of a professionally dishonest and dishonorable class.”

Every current dictionary that I looked in makes mention of the word politician having negative meaning, although it seems to no longer be the primary meaning in any of them. Based on this I’m now of the opinion that it has always been a somewhat dirty word, but is less so now than before; and furthermore is, as are so many words, in a state of flux.

I love watching words change meaning like this, and I find endless enjoyment in the immutable mutability of language. I was talking about the shifts in the meaning of politician with my girlfriend Alix, and she wondered aloud what terms of opprobrium we use now might in a hundred years time have changed to mean something less offensive than they do now. I remarked that I found it odd that children would want to grow up to occupy the position at the pinnacle of Mencken’s professionally dishonest and dishonorable class and Alix responded “Just think, maybe one day our great-grandchildren will aspire to grow up to be the Jackass of the United States of America.”

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One Response to “Politician: Compliment or Curse?”
  1. BookCalendar says:

    Ah, the true meaning of politician, jackass, or possibly, elephant.

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