Friday, March 10, 2017


                           The Co-Opting of the Word Elite by the Real Elites


                                                   Howard Richler

Trump Win Should Send Elites Back to the Drawing Board Thomas Sowell, Nov 14, 2016, Toronto Sun

Reckoning With a Trump Presidency and the Elite Democrats Who Helped Deliver It Betsy Reed, Jeremy Scahill, Glenn Greenwald, Nov 12, 2016, The Intercept

The Hubris of Democratic Elites, Clinton Campaign Gave Us President Trump Kenin Gosztola, Nov 9, 2016, Shadowproof

These are but three of the countless headlines we saw days after the American election asserting that the left-wing “elites” were responsible for the election of Donald Trump. But hold on folks. Surely billionaire Donald Trump who was born into a rich family is also an elite?  And of course, notwithstanding that Trump’s wealth is far greater and far less transparent than that of the Clintons, this didn’t prevent him from constantly assailing Hillary Clinton as an elite on social media.   But, don’t get smug and imagine that the same selective elite-bashing isn’t going on in Canada. In November, Conservative candidate Kellie Leitch sent an email that congratulated Donald Trump on his election victory, praised his anti-establishment message and declared “the elites are out of touch.”  Leitch and her advisors have made “elite” the mantra of their campaign. They have criticized Lisa Raitt for supporting “the left-wing media elite” and called Andrew Scheer an “out-of-touch elite” for launching his leadership campaign at the National Press Theatre in Ottawa.  Incidentally, MD Leitch, who grew up in an affluent family in Winnipeg made these comments while promoting a $500-a-person fundraiser organized by lawyers.

So given most people’s previous understanding of the word, how did “elite” take on this connotation to refer to people on the left of the political spectrum? Dictionaries are not of much help here. The OED defines “elite” as the “choice part or flower (of society, or of any body or class of person” and has its first citation for this definition in the 19th century. Actually, it does show an earlier meaning in the 15th century but with a very narrow sense as “a person chosen, spec., a bishop elect.” The Encarta World English Dictionary gets closer to the implied sense in the headlines quoted above. It defines “elite” as “a small group of people, within a larger group who have more power, social standing, wealth, or talent than the rest of the group.”  But even this doesn’t explain why the term is used nowadays almost exclusively to refer to the liberal left.  If the classic connotation is of people by virtue of birth being able to achieve status at the expense of others, surely the word applies more to the Trumps and Leitches of the cosmos.

The explanation lies in political theory where the term “liberal elite” has been used since the 1960s to describe politically left-leaning people, whose education had traditionally opened the doors to affluence and power and to thus to dominating managerial positions. In fact, if you check the site Google Ngram Viewer which charts the frequency of words and expressions from the years 1500 to 2008, you will find that the expressions “liberal elite” and “Democratic elites” enjoyed huge spikes in usage starting in 1990. An underlying premise of this theory is the belief that the people who claim to support the rights of working men and women are themselves members of the ruling class and are therefore out of touch with the real needs of the people they claim to support and protect. It’s possible that many people supported Trump because they were put off by what they saw as the smugness of some people in the Democratic Party and by the left-leaning media.  Exemplifying this was political commentator Bill Maher’s suggestion that people who intended to vote for Trump suffered from congenital defects. Similarly, Hillary Clinton’s comment during the campaign that half of Trump supporters were “deplorables” caused her great political harm. Claiming that you are somehow superior to others in any aspect of your life is a no-no in our post-modern, post-truth world.  Therefore, right-wing talking heads use the designation” “elite”  as a polemical tool  to declaim  positions associated with the left as varied as environmentalism, secularism, feminism, sexuality, immigration, and multiculturalism.

Ironically, because “regular” Americans were angry at the elites represented by the Democratic Party and the media, they nevertheless elected one of the richest and most elitist people in the United States. These “regular people” disdained the Democrat Party notwithstanding the fact that Democratic President Barack Obama had among other advantages brought them the Affordable Care Act, a form of health care previously only afforded to the elites, now available to over 20 million hard-up Americans.

Only time will tell if “elite” to refer to so-called ivory tower groups with certain political leanings is more appropriate than “elite” used to designate the resident of the Fifth Avenue, pseudo-Versailles Trump Tower.

Richler’s latest book is Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit




Senior Times reader explores the changing meanings of words


                                            Howard Richler

Senior Times reader Shirley Skeans Newell asks, “Can you give me your interpretation of a word triangulation? Yes, there is the old geometric definition, but in psychiatric circles nowadays it has several interpretations.   1) gossip..two people talking about a third person   2) a situation where a third party is trying to bring two persons in conflict together; i.e., a counsellor.”

While triangulation may have been born in the field of geometry it has acquired other senses as Ms Newell correctly states. Aside from the psychological ones she mentioned, the term is used in politics to refer to a process of positioning oneself politically between traditional right-wing and left-wing positions. This coinage is attributed to Dick Morris, a one-time adviser to former US President Bill Clinton.

Many words from the fields of mathematics and sciences have been co-opted by other fields and this sometimes raises the hackles of “originalists.”  Some years ago I wrote a column in which I characterized Silicon Valley as the epicenter of technology and received an angry letter informing me that the term should only be applied to “the point on the surface of the earth that overlies the subterranean focus of an earthquake.” I answered my scold by telling him that while the geologic sense of earthquake was the original meaning of the word when it was first coined in the 19th century, by the 20th century the word acquired the general meaning of “focal point” as in expressions such as “Paris is the epicenter of the fashion industry.”

Similarly, French born American historian Jacques Barzun disliked the usage of “synergy” to refer to the merging of two corporations as he claimed that the true meaning of the word is “ a greater effect than the sum of the efforts.” Actually, it has been used in physiology since the mid 19th century to refer to the working together of a group of bodily organs such as nerve-centres or muscles. But before this it had a more general sense. In 1660, the OED sports this citation: “They speak only of such a Synergie, .. as makes men differ from a sensless stock, or liveless statua, in reference to the great work of his own conversion.”

The borrowing of terms from science and mathematics is hardly a new phenomenon. The original meaning of “galaxy” was “a luminous band ..encircling the heavens irregularly, and known to consist of innumerable stars..” and the OED sports a citation with this sense in 1398. But by the year 1590 the word was being used to describe a crowd of beautiful women. Similarly, the word “eclipse” was first used to describe a celestial event in 1300, but by 1526 it was used to describe “the periodical obscuration of the light from a light-house” and by 1711 to “a fraudulent device in dice-playing.” By the early 18th century it began to be used as a verb meaning “to surpass.” Similarly, “parameter” has transcended its mathematical genesis. While the original 17th century OED definition refers to “the proportional to any given diameter and its conjugate,” by the 20th century, however, it had been used often by the mathematically-challenged public to mean any fact or circumstance that limits how something is done. Some years ago, authors Lara Stein and Benjamin Yoskovitz in The Buzzword Bingo Book mocked the usage of “algorithm” to mean “any tested, methodical approach to getting from A to Z. We used to call this a plan.” But what we have here is a generalization process where a problem-solving procedure for answering strictly mathematical conundrums is extended to solving any problem. In any case the OED relates that the strictly mathematical sense was co-opted by the medical profession in the late 1960s to refer to a “step-by-step procedure for reaching a clinical decision or diagnosis, often set out in the form of a flow chart, in which the answer to each question determines the next question to be asked.”

It is said that a little knowledge is a dangerous thing, and this maxim holds true in misconceptions about the meaning of words. Some people cling to the curious belief that change somehow takes us away from the “true” meaning of words. This belief, often called the etymological fallacy, is clearly absurd. Its retention would  posit that only stone buildings can de dilapidated because of the etymology from the Latin, lapis, meaning  “stone” and that only men can possess virtue, because the word comes from the Latin virs, “man.” Associated with this belief is a “professional” fallacy where people in certain professions object to the way their specialized words are co-opted by the masses.

Keep those letters coming Senior Times readers.

Richler’s latest book Wordplay:Arranged and Deranged Wit was published last year.