March 17th, 2014 // 11:39 am @ Oliver DeMille
Let’s go deep. Or really basic, depending on your viewpoint. Socrates is credited with saying that the definition of terms is the beginning of wisdom. Sometimes defining things can be a bit overwhelming, and that’s the case in our topic today. What am I talking about?
Well, I was reading through the compact edition of the Oxford English Thesaurus (a really fun read—try it sometime), and I came to the word “Political.” The list of synonyms was interesting to me: governmental, constitutional, ministerial, parliamentary, diplomatic, legislative, administrative, bureaucratic; party, militant, factional, partisan.
The first time through, I was struck by the number of ways governments can try to control people. But something else was bothering me, in the back of my mind, so I read through the list again to see if I could figure it out. I still wasn’t sure. “Maybe it’s that there’s a strong legislative and also executive focus,” I mused to myself, “but the judicial power of government is left out. As if the judiciary is really not political,” I laughed.
Then I furrowed my brow. “Or maybe it’s that this list is missing so many synonyms,” I thought. I quickly skimmed through the pages and found the word “government,” to see it if added more depth or nuance. It added the following words: executive, regime, authority, directorate, council, cabinet, ministry, regulation, supervision.
“Interesting,” I thought. I had planned to look up each of the synonyms above, one at a time, so I went ahead and turned to the entry for “constitutional.” It added the synonyms statutory, chartered, vested, official, and sanctioned.
“This isn’t really what was bothering me,” I realized. “It’s not the need for more synonyms. It must be something else.” I wondered what it could be. While I was thinking about this, I reviewed this growing list of synonyms and shook my head. I said aloud, “That’s a lot of government control!”
Then I got it. Somehow, the thing that had been bothering me made it into my consciousness. It was a Eureka! moment. I walked through the house, looking for Rachel or one of the kids to share my new discovery with. Nobody was awake, since it was very late at night, so I opened my laptop and started writing. This is too good not to share, after all.
What was my big epiphany? Simply this: None of the synonyms seem to have anything to do with the people. The word “constitutional” refers to rules written by the people to the government, but most people today don’t realize this. None of the other words were about the people at all, except the word “party,” meaning political parties.
That’s something. I’m not sure what it means, but in our modern language the words “political” and “constitutional” only have one major synonym that includes the people—and that one refers to political parties. Sad.
My question is, “Why?”
Citizens and Leaders
In the time of the American founding, both words held the connotation of actions and choices by the people. Why isn’t “election” or “citizenship” listed as a synonym under either in today’s dictionary? In fact, I turned to these words and found that the synonyms of “citizen” are subject, passport holder, native, resident, denizen.
“Denizen?” That’s an interesting way to view the regular people. In fact, all of these synonyms are passive, none of them are active. None of them present the citizen as a leader, as the true head of the nation.
This is consistent with our modern world, I guess, but it is still wrong. We’ve come to see governments as rulers, and people as subjects. Period. That’s sad.
While I was analyzing this, I realized that something was still bothering me. There was still something tugging at the back of my mind. “What is it?” I asked. I still had my bookmark tucked into the page where the word “political” is found, so I turned back to it and reread the synonyms. Then I noticed something, and everything clicked.
A Sharp Contrast
The word right above “political” is “politic.” Just read this list of synonyms of “politic,” and think about how these relate to politics: wise, prudent, sensible, judicious, canny, sagacious, shrewd, astute, advantageous, beneficial, profitable.
What do any of these have to do with the political world? I mean, they should be connected. They really should. But they hardly ever are.
“Wow!” I said aloud. “This is really interesting. I love reading the dictionary.” Just compare these two lists:
Synonyms of “Political”
Synonyms of “Politic”
Does anyone else see the irony? Bureaucratic paired with Astute? Partisan with Profitable? Really? Governmental paired with Wise? It’s like a Mark Twain Guide to Preparing for the S.A.T.s.
And yes, both words, “political” and “politic”, come from the same root word, the Greek politikos, meaning “statesman,” “leader of the city,” or in modern terms, “leader of the nation.”
Decline is real.
Let’s read more dictionaries.
Oliver DeMille is the New York Times, Wall Street Journal and USA Today bestselling co-author of LeaderShift: A Call for Americans to Finally Stand Up and Lead, the co-founder of the Center for Social Leadership, and a co-creator of TJEd.
Among many other works, he is the author of A Thomas Jefferson Education: Teaching a Generation of Leaders for the 21st Century, The Coming Aristocracy, and FreedomShift: 3 Choices to Reclaim America’s Destiny.
Oliver is dedicated to promoting freedom through leadership education. He and his wife Rachel are raising their eight children in Cedar City, Utah.