What is a demagogue?

Demagogue is a word which saw increased use during the recent presidential campaign (although it wasn’t used nearly enough in my opinion). It’s one of those political words that you can count on to be thrown around in just about any campaign, as reliably as the use of ‘liberal‘ as an insult or ‘job creator‘ as something other than fictitious résumé padding. But you’ll almost never hear anyone explain what they mean when they use the word demagogue. You’re expected to know it. Which is fine for people who have a good vocabulary or a strong political background, but I’d bet that many people, especially younger ones, don’t have a clear understanding of the word and they have to figure it out from the context (or look it up, which no one wants to do in the middle of a news report).

What does demagogue mean? Where does it come from, where’s it been, and where’s it going? Let’s take a look.

Enough with the demagoguery. Click for more.

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Please try to understand: it’s “try to” not “try and”

I’ve often stressed that the observations and advice posted here are primarily about written English, as opposed to spoken English.

For a number of reasons written English and spoken English can almost be thought of as two separate languages, or as two very closely related but distinct branches of the same language family. Of course, thinking of them in that way is extreme — they really are the same language. But to some extent these two forms of English follow different conventions (“rules” is often too strong a word to describe the norms of our language).

Try to do the right thing and click for more

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Indian summer: what and when is it?

We’re not experiencing it yet where I live (outside of Boston), but it’s that time of year when people start talking about “Indian summer.” I’ve seen a few references to this seasonal quirk lately (including one in something I was editing), and it seems an appropriate topic to discuss today.

What is Indian summer and where does this term come from?

Like an Indian summer, there’s more of this post (if you click here)

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Racialism: it’s not the same as racism. Or is it?

The word “racialist” got tossed around in public for a day or two last week after Hillary Clinton used it in a speech.

Here’s what Clinton said:

No one should have any illusions about what’s really going on here. The names may have changed… Racists now call themselves “racialists.” White supremacists now call themselves “white nationalists.” The paranoid fringe now calls itself “alt-right.” But the hate burns just as bright.

She was drawing attention to a certain kind of person, along the lines of what Adam Gopnik referred to in May as crypto-fascists: those folks on the farthest political fringe, who most politicians studiously avoided just a few years ago, but who this year are suddenly part of the equation (and part of the discourse), and which Trump and his campaign, such as it is, have often courted directly or indirectly.

But is it as simple as Clinton describes it? Is racialism just racism with two extra letters? Let’s take a look.

Click to see if those extra two letters matter…

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Panhandler: Its Origins Are Unclear, But Its Meaning Isn’t

Children are experts at uncovering quirks in language use. Most of us, as we get older, become so used to the inconsistencies and the oddball idiomatic expressions that we no longer notice them. Kids, because they haven’t been exposed to as much language, are better at catching seemingly nonsensical turns of phrase, especially in once-common phrases that have faded to only occasional use.

Not long ago I was in a mixed conversation of adults and children when one of the adults used the term “panhandler.” The children had never heard the word before, and we shifted into a brief digression to identify synonyms (“beggar” was put forward, as well as the equally little-known “mendicant“) and speculate on the term’s origin. I knew at least one story, but I didn’t find it satisfying so I decided to dig further.

Let’s go panning (not panhandling) for more

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