Population vs Populace

By Maeve Maddox

Lately I have begun to notice speakers and writers using the word populace where I would expect to see the word population. For example:

With a young and skilled workforce – 65% of Turkey’s 74 million populace is under the age of 34 – producing 500,000 graduates a year, Turkey is now classified as a fast developing economy.

Meanwhile, 3.7 percent of the 2012 populace – or roughly 23,436 people – held doctorates.

Both words, population and populace, derive ultimately from a Latin word for people, but the words entered English with distinctive meanings.

From the beginning, population referred to the collective inhabitants of a place, whereas populace had the meaning “ordinary people” as opposed to the titled, wealthy, or privileged classes.

In Frances Hodgson Burnett’s The Little Princess (1905), the protagonist has been taught by her middleclass father to be kind to “the populace.” Thrust suddenly from a comfortable life into poverty, Sara learns what it is to be hungry. On the way to buy some buns, she notices a ragged little girl with “hungry eyes”:

Sara knew they were hungry eyes the moment she saw them, and she felt a sudden sympathy. “This,” she said to herself, with a little sigh, “is one of the populace—and she is hungrier than I am.”

Not only did the word populace refer to the less privileged part of the population, it was also used as a pejorative term for “the mob, the rabble, the unthinking masses.”

Populace is increasingly used as a mere synonym for population, but its other connotations linger:

The upper-middle class wants to lead an aroused populace against the true enemy, but the populace isn’t listening.—The American Interest, Vol. 6, No. 3, January 11, 2011.

Population is neutral, while populace often carries a superior tone toward the group it refers to.— The Grammarist

The connotation of ignorance, fickleness, and tractability is present in the following quotations:

A Scare A Week Keeps the Populace Meek

The direction of the government is driven by raw emotion; it can change from one day to the next, depending on how effectively demagogues are able to harness and control the populace.

An uninformed populace will fall for anything.

The term argumentum ad populum, “appeal to the populace” is applied to the logical fallacy also known as “appeal to the masses” and “the bandwagon fallacy.”

The verb sway is frequently found in tandem with populace:

Choice of political candidates solely by popular referendum is one of the greatest dangers to a democracy as it opens the way for demagogues and liars to sway the populace with empty rhetoric and promises.

In elections, the candidates make daily public appearances to sway the general populace.

sway transitive verb: To cause to move backward and forward or from side to side.

Populace may be taking on a new meaning when used with a modifier: “a portion of the general population perceived as having shared interests or characteristics.” Here are some examples in which populace is used to denote a segment of a larger population:

Hernandez wants to assist Birmingham’s Hispanic populace.

North Carolina’s immigrant populace emphasizes the financial power of non-native residents via their vital contributions to the state’s economy.

In our community, there are perspectives that continue to compromise and even endanger the lives of our most physically and/or cognitively disabled populace.

Population remains the less ambiguous choice when referring to all the inhabitants of a place and not to a specified portion of them.

Note: The adjective populous (“densely populated”) is often used erroneously for the noun populace:

INCORRECT: The immigrant populous of the colonial era prompted, at least in part, Jean de Crevecoeur’s concept of a “new man” that differed from European stock in both style and substance.—Egg Harbor Regional High School District, Atlantic County, New Jersey.
CORRECT :  The immigrant populace of the colonial era prompted, at least in part, Jean de Crevecoeur’s concept of a “new man” that differed from European stock in both style and substance.

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