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Lingofile is here to appeal to your passion for language. Professor Kate Burridge posts musings about language - please join the discussion below.
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Pollie perks

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Recent shenanigans in the Australian political arena have inspired me to revisit a couple of expressions that have been key words in all the drama of late — politicians and perks.


First I was interested to see whether mainstream dictionaries had got round to revising their entries for politician, finally acknowledging that definitions like the following are no longer “obsolete” (if they ever were!):

Politician:  A politic person; chiefly in a sinister sense, a shrewd schemer; a crafty plotter or intriguer.  Obs. [Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition]

This negative description grew out of earliest senses of politic that saw a rapid decline from earlier ‘prudent, sagacious’ to ‘scheming, conniving’. This development is not surprising — words to do with intelligence typically acquire overtones of deceitfulness. Crafty, cunning and artful were once favourable too, but they deteriorated spectacularly (and clever is well on the way to joining them). It seems we are mistrustful of those who demonstrate advanced thinking powers— or is it more that dishonest tendencies lurk in smart human beings? Something is driving this shift.

Now, with time words can acquire a kind of “semantic halo” (to use novelist C.S. Lewis’ term), and like many I’ve used politician as an example of this process. As the story goes — the shift from permanent monarchies to democratically elected representative governments triggered an elevation of terms like politician and democracy. Hence the second neutral sense:

Politician:  One versed in the theory of science of government and the art of governing; one skilled in politics; one practically engaged in conducting the business of the state; a statesman. [Oxford English Dictionary 2nd Edition]


It seems that most dictionaries (including those under the Oxford banner) now embrace both senses. But netural and negative meanings rarely coexist in words — and the contributions to Urban Dictionary bear this out. In none of the 63 definitions of politician do we find anything approaching the neutrality that supposedly came with the societal changes. Here’s the top Urban Dictionary definition:

1. A person who practices politics.

"Politics" is derived from the words "poly" meaning "many", and "tics" meaning "blood-sucking parasites."

2. One who was perfected the art of lying.

3. A highly paid yes-man.

Perk offers another example of Gresham’s law of semantic deterioration*. Originally a slang expression, perk made its appearance in the early 1820s as an abbreviation of the word perquisite (from Latin perquisitum meaning ‘that which is acquired’).

Of course perks can be honorably obtained, but from the beginning these “unofficial” fringe benefits were more often than not dishonest. In his 1869 exploration of London crime The seven curses of London, James Greenwood describes perk as applying to “such unconsidered trifles as wax candle ends, and may be stretched so as to cover the larcenous abstraction by our man-servant of forgotten coats and vests”. He then goes to describe the schemes of  “your butler or your cook to conspire with the roguish tradesman” (recall how Blackadder would steal Prince George's socks and sell them for cash). But these are indeed “small pilfer­ings” (to quote Greenwood) compared to the abuses of today’s politicians.

The behaviour of words over time suggests that the dishonest whiff that surrounds perks and entitlements will just get whiffier. And any attempt to rename them as say business expenses (to go with Malcolm Turnbull’s suggestion) will simply be interpreted as spin — at best an attempt to make things seem not as bad as they look, at worst another layer of guile and non-transparency. True, words can occasionally climb out of the semantic abyss and take on positive associations after they’ve been degraded in this way, but any amelioration of politician seems a long way off — and the current behavior of the referent would certainly suggest this.

Kate Burridge

* Economics has Gresham’s Law: ‘Bad money drives out good.’ Sociology has Knight’s Law: ‘Bad talk drives out good’. Linguistics has (what Keith and I rather cheekily called) the Allan-Burridge Law of Semantic Change: ‘Bad connotations drive out good.’ The expression ‘Gresham's law’ is named after Sir Thomas Gresham, a 16th century English financier who worked for King Edward VI. The law dates back to the 1850s when it was first used by economist Henry Dunning Macleod to refer to the tendency (when there is more than one form of money in circulation) for bad money to drive out good money. The application of Gresham’s Law to language is not recent and the linguistic law should more properly be labeled Rawson’s Law, or better Bernstein’s Law of Semantic Change.Hugh Rawson referred to Gresham’s Law of Language in the first edition (1981) of Rawson’s Dictionary of Euphemisms & Other Doubletalk. Even earlier, Theodore Menline Bernstein, journalist and former editor of The New York Times, outlined his second law of language (also based on Gresham’s Law): ‘Bad words tend to drive out good ones’ (The Careful Writer 1965).

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Introducing Kate Burridge

Kate Burridge, our resident linguist, is Professor of Linguistics in the School of Languages, Literature, Cultures and Linguistics (Monash University) and a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. Her main areas of research are: grammatical change in Germanic languages, the Pennsylvania German spoken by Amish / Mennonite communities in North America, the notion of linguistic taboo and the structure and history of English. She is a regular presenter of language segments on radio and has been a panelist on ABC TV’s Can We Help.

Her books include: Euphemism and Dysphemism: Language used as shield and weapon (with Keith Allan, 1991), Syntactic Change in Germanic (1993), English in Australia and New Zealand (with Jean Mulder, 1998), Blooming English: Observations on the roots, cultivation and hybrids of the English Language (2004), Weeds in the Garden of Words: Further observations on the tangled history of the English language (2005), Forbidden Words: Taboo and the censoring of language (with Keith Allan, 2006), Introducing English Grammar (with Kersti Börjars, 2010), Gift of the Gob: Morsels of English language history (2010) and (with Debbie de Laps) Love the Lingo (2010) and Living Lingo (2011).