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Words matter 
23rd-Oct-2008 12:17 pm
or so we're told.

So I was struck by a thought when reading the news today. THIS IS NOT POLITICAL. The word was used in a political context, but it is why that context works that I am pondering -- how the word itself works.

It was in a McCain response to the Palin wardrobe flap. He brushed off critics by saying they quote -- harbored an elitist attitude. -- end quote. So I was struck by how often "elite" gets thrown around in this country lately.

Like "liberal," "elite" has taken on (at least as people are using it ) a negative connotation. So, I suppose that an "elitist" attitude can't be good, right?

Strangely, the answer is yes. Before all the political distortions happened,"elitist" meant someone who believes in rule by an elite group. In this country, we don't believe in that -- we consider it snobbish. So yeah, elitist is bad.

Why "strangely?" Elite used to mean selected as the best. (The elite, therefore, was a group of "the best" -- usually intellectually, but also socially or economically.) Yet, the way it gets thrown around so much, it seems to mean "opposite of what I believe and therefore bad." By definition, anything not-elite cannot be "selected as the best." In other words, that which cannot be selected as best is better than that which can. So best is bad.

Here's where my head starts to hurt.

How does this happen in a society. Again -- I'm not talking about the politics. I'm talking about how we use and misuse words in this country. How is it that an elite (media) gets away with using the word to mean not good -- and get away with it?

23rd-Oct-2008 05:17 pm (UTC)
I think in the context it is generally meant not to define the elite themselves as not being the best, but an attitude that only the elite matter. In particular, it usually implies that the person being spoken against has self-selected into that elite group and everyone not a part of it should just accept it.

Given that context, I can understand the usage. It has been around in that way since at least the Spiro Agnew days and likely before (possibly I can find a reference as far back as FDR, if not then at least during the Eisenhower/Stevenson campaign as part of the "egghead" image).
23rd-Oct-2008 05:50 pm (UTC)
It's nicely ironic, isn't it?

The meanings of words change according to use; it's probably "elitist" to talk about "misuse" when talking about definitions--after all then you're judging based on some definitions accepted by a different elite group--those that write dictionaries.

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