DEMOTIC: pertaining to the common people

I ran across the word demotic while reading the recent posting of John McIntyre in his blog You Don’t Say.

Demotic is a word used with some regularity, it would seem, in the world of linguistics.  It means “common language” as opposed to “formal language.”   Over decades and centuries of use language changes.   Formal usages and rules tend to morph into more common speech and eventually the common usages become the norm for most people.   The  simplest example would be the word gay which, whether linguists like it or not, has become known as a reference to homosexuality. One can argue until blue in the face that it is unfortunate that its original meaning (something happy or lighthearted) has been overshadowed, but in today’s world the more common meaning is that of homosexual.

But the word demotic does not dwell exclusively in the realm of linguistics.   It also refers to the segment of the population we know as the common people.   Obviously, the two references are related.   Depending upon one’s intent, a reference to the common people is either a values-neutral term meaning the middle class or lower class of a population or it is a pejorative term meant as a put-down by someone being elitist.

Given our current fascination with populism* the word demotic deserves a more frequent place in current journalism and literature.  For instance,

“Sarah Palin’s demotic rants would led one to believe that the middle class of America dwell at the point of the lowest common denominator.”

Oh, how about this:

“In their legislative proposals, the Republican side of the aisle would be better served to remember the demotic roots from which most of them have come rather than cow-towing to the rich and powerful.”

Or this:

“President Obama’s passion for the protection of the lifestyles of demotic citizens would be better served by greater diligence in protecting Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid.”

It is a good word, and works well in descriptive journalism, but the fact remains that its existence is remote to most people and it tends toward being a little too precious for everyday use.   But who knows?  Maybe if employed more frequently the word demotic may find its way into the very presence it describes: common usage.

Illustration Credit: Colin Stokes

(*populism: representation or extolling of the common person, the working class)

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