Simanaitis Says

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FOR ONCE in my continuing Etymology for Today series (see chaos, mendacity, and the like), I’ve come upon a difference in my two primary sources, one dated 1971 and the other today.

Indeed, it’s only a matter of ordering two contrasting meanings. However, perhaps it’s significant of our changing times: The word is “demagogue.”

The Compact Edition of the Oxford English Dictionary (2 Volume Set), Oxford University Press, 1971. Image recycled yet again.

My particular OED is the 1971 compact edition, microprinted with a handy magnifying glass. It notes the word demagogue comes from the Greek, δημαγωγ, a leader of people.

The OED’s first definition is in a positive, or at least neutral, sense: “a popular leader or orator who espouses the cause of the people.”

Its citation in this positive sense is Thomas Hobbes, one of the founders of modern political philosophy, 1651: “In a Democracy, look how many Demagogues [that is] how many powerful Orators there are with the people.”

Leviathan, 1651, by Thomas Hobbes, 1588–1679, English philosopher who proposed a social contract theory between a ruler and those ruled.

After a few more positive citations, the OED gets to demagogue in the bad sense: “a leader of a popular faction, or of the mob, a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests; an unprincipled or factious orator.”

The OED’s citation in this negative sense is just a few years earlier than the other, 1648: “Who were the chief demagogues or patrons of tumults, to send for them, to flatter and embolden them.”

Merriam-Webster Online is my up-to-the-minute source: Its first meaning is “a leader who makes use of popular prejudices and false claims and promises in order to gain power.”

Imagine a leader doing that.

As its second meaning, Merriam-Webster agrees with the OED’s first one: “a leader championing the cause of the common people in ancient times.”

Solon, c. 638 B.C. – c. 558 B.C., Athenian statesman and poet, the Giver of Law.

Gee, this is almost enough to wish for those Good Old—I mean really old—Days. Ancient Thebes required that any political aspirant first give up trade for ten years. On the other hand, I recall other less positive aspects of Greek Democracy 1.0. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2017


  1. Paul M Everett
    August 26, 2017

    Minor correction for those of us who like to explore the Greek backgrounds: The complete Greek word for demagogue is δημαγωγος, with that “ος” on the end.
    And that comment is an excuse to say thanks for all these wonderful explorations into the backgrounds of words (I guess that’s called etymology, which I just had to look up in your favorite OED to find its origin) along with more current references! They are always enlightening.

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