You keep using that word

I’m reading through Deirdre McCloskey’s generally-excellent and occasionally-surreal The Bourgeois Virtues at the moment. It’s a great read, although its target audience — people whose reflexive reaction to the term “bourgeois virtue” is a sneer and a snort — probably won’t buy or read a six hundred page apologia thereupon (let alone four of them).  Still, it’s far from a sermon to the choir, and I’m finding my hard-nosed stoic-existentialist naturalism gently and unsettlingly challenged.  (It’s also the first book I’ve read since Kierkegaard that is deeply Christian without being smarmy.)

I do have one complaint: McCloskey likes to use “democratic” when she seems to mean something more like “anthropophilic”*, as for example in:

True humility on the contrary is democratic, looking for the best in people, and often finding it.

(Emphasis added.)

Perhaps she does, in a subtle and precise way, mean that true humility is subject to rule by the people.  I rather suspect, however, that she uses the term in the more amorphous sense of “respectful of people in general, rather than an elite few”.  I think democracy is a pretty cool guy, but its generically laudatory use — “warm happy fuzzy feelings for everyone” — isn’t doing anyone any favours, least of all uptight usage Nazis like me.


* I’d compare to “philanthropic” if modern usage hadn’t reduced that one to “giving lots of money to colleges and symphonies”.

5 Responses to “You keep using that word”

  1. 1 kbiel
    October 11, 2012 at 11:05

    There are many words that don’t quite do the job, but are still better fits than democratic. Meritocratic and egalitarian come to mind.

    • October 11, 2012 at 20:14

      I’d never thought of “meritocratic” as having a happy, friendly, find-the-good-in-everyone ring to it. I’m unexpectedly pleased to hear that, to someone, it does.

      • 3 kbiel
        October 11, 2012 at 20:54

        Like I said, it doesn’t quite do the job, but to be meritocratic you have to look for and promote the good as well as naming and shaming the bad. But I’m reacting to this fun semantic point completely on one sentence taken out of context.

      • 5 perlhaqr
        October 14, 2012 at 07:18

        I too use the word that way, and get really really confused thereby when other people use it in a derogatory fashion, because it doesn’t parse that way in my internal lexicon.

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