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The politics of “political” – how the word has changed its meaning

Oxford University Blog: “Over the course of history, the word “political” has evolved from being synonymous with “public sphere” or “good government” to meaning “calculating” or “partisan.” How did we get here? This adapted excerpt from Keywords for Today: A 21st Century Vocabulary explains the evolution. The problems posed by political result from a combination of the term’s semantic shift over the last several centuries and the changing face of post-national politics that have become so important since mid-twentieth century.

One hallmark of modern politics is its asymmetry. Whereas the political was formerly imagined as practically synonymous with the public sphere, and with conflicts between institutions or nation states, now it can just as frequently designate conflicts between an individual and an institution, or between a non-national group and an ideology (e.g., between G8 protestors and police in various countries, or between the Taliban and ‘the west’). This shift has affected the linguistic fortunes of the words politics and political, as the adjectival and nominal forms have developed different connotations over the last several decades.

The adjective political has developed to have two relatively exclusive meanings. Political has supplanted the now largely archaic adjectival form politic. Both forms derive ultimately from Greek polis, initially a city-state and then later, by extension, the body politic. In medieval usage, the adjective politik connoted that which was prudent, sensible, and sagacious, a meaning that continued even as the usual form migrated to political. The political as a realm of public speech was imagined as elevated and righteous, often contrasting the perceived benefits of constitutional governments against the characteristics of despotism or tyranny…”

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