Bureaucrats and Politicians

By Maeve Maddox

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A reader has asked for a discussion of the words, bureaucrats vs officials, and lawmakers vs politicians.

[I’d] like to know what teachers and English-language experts think of the use of these terms in the media, politics, or in everyday conversation. For example, why using “bureaucrats” in a sentence will generate a different reaction than using the neutral “officials”?

All but the most utilitarian words in English have connotations— shades of meaning that influence the way a statement is understood by readers or listeners.

Sometimes the connotation arises from the word’s denotation. For example, the ordinary current sense of the word coffin is “the box in which a corpse is enclosed.” The connotation of coffin as a gloomy word derives from its denotation as an object associated with death.

denotation=what a word means
connotation=what a word suggests

The noun mother, on the other hand, denotes “a woman who has given birth to a child.” Because
(it is hoped) most women who have given birth nurture and cherish their children, mother connotes warmth and all-encompassing love.

The word bureaucrat, derived from bureaucracy, acquired its negative connotation at the get-go.

English takes bureaucracy from French bureaucratie, “government by bureaus.” The word was coined in 1818 by French economist Jean Claude Marie Vincent de Gournay (1712-1759). The word’s original denotation conveyed “tyrannical officialdom.” The bureaucratic government was seen as having a tendency to be inefficient and inflexible, unable or unwilling to make exceptions for individual human needs.

The noun bureaucrat, “member of a bureaucracy,” came along in 1839. The word is formed on the pattern of aristocrat, a word that also comes to English from French. As with bureaucrat, aristocrat came into the world with less than warm feelings. It was coined in 1789, the year the Bastille was stormed, when the revolutionaries needed a suitable word to call the members of the hated aristocracy they were marching to the guillotine.

The word politician, coined in the 1580s with the denotation “a person skilled in politics,” lost no time in acquiring negative connotations.

In his 1755 dictionary, Dr. Johnson defined politician as “a man of artifice; one of deep contrivance.” Even before that, in I Henry IV (1596), Shakespeare has Hotspur display his contempt for Bolingbroke by calling him a “vile Politician.”

Advertisers, politicians, and other professionals whose success depends upon the ability to manipulate the thinking of a segment of the public are experts in knowing which words possess positive, negative, or neutral connotations.

When negative connotations are deemed inadvisable, the terms official and lawmaker provide alternative words for bureaucrat and politician. An official can be anyone who holds some kind of office in the government. Official has few if any connotations, either positive or negative.

The word lawmaker denotes “one who makes laws; a lawgiver, legislator.” If anything, lawmaker has positive, even elegant connotations. Solon was a lawmaker. A more neutral, less flattering word would be legislator.

I don’t, by the way, share the reader’s idea that politician and lawmaker are necessarily interchangeable. To me, a politician is someone in an elected office who is constantly striving for reelection. A lawmaker is someone actually involved in doing the job for which he/she was elected.

Bureaucrats have their own language, known as bureaucratese or officialese, characterized by passive voice and a great many nouns ending in –tion.

As to what contemporary “teachers and English-language experts” think of the use of these words, I can’t say. Perhaps some of them will express their thoughts in the comments below.

I do know that the long-departed H.W. Fowler (1858—1933) detested the word bureaucrat and all its kin:

The formation is so barbarous that all attempt at self-respect in pronunciation may perhaps as well be abandoned. . . . it is only to be desired that the spelling could also be changed to burocrat.
Modern English Usage (1963).

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3 Responses to “Bureaucrats and Politicians”

  • ApK

    “I don’t, by the way, share the reader’s idea that politician and lawmaker are necessarily interchangeable. To me, a politician is someone in an elected office who is constantly striving for reelection. A lawmaker is someone actually involved in doing the job for which he/she was elected.”

    A legislator or lawmaker may indeed be–almost certainly has to be– a politician, but not all politician’s jobs are to make laws. They are certainly not “interchangeable” terms any more than “shape” and “circle” are interchangeable. The County Clerk may be an elected politician, and she may do her job very well, but she’s not a legislator or lawmaker, as her job doesn’t involve making any laws

  • Barbara Youree

    I had never thought much about the connotations of these words, but I use them all as you explained—except for politician. For me I have always thought of it referring to someone in elected office that knows how to win an argument, compromise, and succeed in getting legislation passed. But if I am referring to a particular politician, I usually use an adjective: Skilled politician for someone who can convince others to agree to good laws or get them to compromise for a good cause. I usually use crafty or deceitful politician for the ones I disapprove of. I guess they are both “skillful” but I mostly think of that word as being positive.
    I am not challenging the meaning, only giving my opinion.

  • Marilyn H. Collins

    Beautifully crafted. Your treatise is excellent and inspires me to more decisively consider the words that I use.

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