Sunday, January 13, 2008

Word of the Week: pundit

Do you remember those reading comprehension tests we all took in school? You know, those where you had to figure out the meaning of a word from the context of the sentence or paragraph in which the word was used. (I experienced -- first-hand -- the value of the skill in high school when I was filling out a job application and one question on the form was: Are you bonded -- Yes or No? At 17 I certainly didn’t know what bonding was but applying what I thought of as a derivation of the reading comprehension idea, I reasoned: “if I were bonded, I think I would know it”, so the answer must be no. Anyway…)

The skill of figuring out the meaning of a word from the context came to mind this week with all the news reports about how all the pundits got the New Hampshire primary results so wrong. Of course I’d heard the term pundit before, but I never really knew its definition. Given the way it was used before primary day, I figured pundits were those who gave their opinion and who, for a reason that was never clear to me, the media made a big to-do about listening to. I paid close enough attention to realize that some that the media labeled pundits were clearly biased in favour of one party or the other. Indeed, in many cases it seemed that those pundits’ main claim to fame was having worked for a well-known Republican or Democrat in the past. Other so-called pundits seemed to have come to their conclusion based on various “polls”. (Poll was almost the word of the week because it drives me crazy that it can refer to the results of a mere survey of opinions or to an actual tally of votes at an official election.)

After Hilary’s victory, from the way the term was then used, it seemed to me that anyone who had predicted the outcome incorrectly was labeled a pundit. Rather confusing, given that just before the election we’re led to believe that a pundit is someone who knows what they’re talking about!

Eventually I turned to the dictionary. I’m happy to report that my reading comprehension skills didn’t let me down. According to my dictionary (Webster's New World College Dictionary (4th Ed)), a pundit is: “a person who has or professes to have great learning; actual or self-professed authority.” So I guess you can say that before the actual primary all those who were treated as though they had great learning definitely qualified as pundits and after the primary they were rightly referred to as pundits because at that point it was clear that what they really had was (merely) professed authority.


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