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warren clements: word play

On Aug. 3, Report on Business columnist Neil Reynolds criticized Democrats who had used inflammatory language to describe the tactics of Tea Party Republicans in the battle over raising the U.S. debt ceiling. Using phrases such as "suicide bombers" and "put guns to our heads" was "a preposterous and shameful misuse of metaphor," he wrote, "and an astonishing example of a panicked herd caught in mid-stampede. Let's hope that America's liberal intelligentsia and its liberal media relax their stalking points a bit before they go over the cliff."

Harsh metaphors aren't solely a Democratic preserve, of course. Republican congresswoman Michele Bachmann drew flak last summer for stating that President Barack Obama was "turning our country into a nation of slaves" and that the Democrats had imposed "tyranny" on the country.

But the phrase that caught my eye, not for the first time, was "liberal intelligentsia." Reading between the lines, I would guess Reynolds was not using the term as a compliment. Britain's Margaret Thatcher, in an older comment quoted last month by the newspaper The Australian, used the expression with a sneer. "There is now, as always, nothing the liberal intelligentsia liked to believe more than 'we are guilty,'" she wrote about global warming. "But are we?"

A June 13 editorial in The Arkansas Democrat-Gazette wryly noted the company in which the phrase often finds itself: "the out-of-touch, ivory tower, zero common sense, head in the clouds, liberal intelligentsia." Yet the etymological history of liberal and intelligentsia would suggest the phrase is positive.

Intelligentsia entered English in the 1920s from the Russian intelligentsiya, which dates back to at least 1836 in its sense of an educated class of people (some sources specify the bourgeoisie) fascinated by and promoting ideas in pre-revolutionary Russia. A 1956 article said "intelligentsia" had long been applied to "intermediaries between local life and wider life."

The Russian word was probably borrowed from the Polish inteligiencja, which ultimately derived from the Latin intelligentia, intelligence. The Latin verb intelligere combined inter (between) and legere (read, choose); it meant to make choices, to understand. Intelligens, the Latin present participle of intelligere, gave English the word intelligent.

For its part, the word liberal has led a confused life. Politically, it used to be a rallying cry for those seeking less government and more individual liberty, and more recently has been employed to mean the opposite, a call for greater government regulation.

But the non-political sense is everything a body might wish. Liberal entered English by the 1300s as a synonym for generous, independent and speaking freely – no surprise, since it originated in the Latin liber, free. By the 1770s, the Oxford English Dictionary records, it had the sense of "free from bias, prejudice, bigotry; open-minded, tolerant." By those lights, the liberal intelligentsia seems a good club to belong to.

Another thought struck me on reading the phrase. Everyone talks about liberal intelligentsia, but nobody seems to talk about conservative intelligentsia. Yet the phrase exists. A random database check of English-language newspapers over the past 12 months found 164 uses of "liberal intelligentsia" and 29 of "conservative intelligentsia."

Some of those 29 articles saw conservative intelligentsia as desirable. A piece in the Ottawa Citizen on July 10 regretted that, in Canada, "a conservative intelligentsia is so thin on the ground." But U.S. talk-radio host Rush Limbaugh opined on July 29 that "the conservative intelligentsia, the conservative so-called media inside the Beltway, would have accepted anything" in the debt-ceiling struggle, by which he meant that the intelligentsia didn't have the spine of the Tea Party.

Never mind. Here's a toast to liberal thought and to intelligence. Long may they wave, even if 100 years ago Ambrose Bierce, in his amusingly caustic The Devil's Dictionary, defined "intelligent" this way: "in politics, having a vote; in journalism, taking the paper; holding the same opinion as oneself; rich."

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