I’m reading In War’s Dark Shadow by W. Bruce Lincoln (having been prompted by my Unread books post), and a particular usage is bothering me. Here’s an example: “Among Russian writers and publicists, ignorance about the lives lived by such men and women bred contempt…” Elsewhere he quotes a “French publicist.” Now, to me, this is a completely un-English usage (to me a publicist is exclusively a press agent or other PR type); I’m familiar with it from Russian публицист [publitsist] ‘commentator on current affairs,’ but I always regarded its use in English as a flagrant example of translationese (like “echelon“). Now that I check the OED, I find that it is in fact good English:

2. loosely. A writer on current public topics; a journalist who makes political matters his speciality.
1833 Westm. Rev. Jan. 195 We hear of editors, reporters, writers in newspapers, and sometimes ‘publicists’, a neological term; but the world.. does not assign the definite meanings to these terms. 1863 S. EDWARDS Polish Captivity I. 78 Certain German publicists point with an air of triumph to the fact that Prussia has constructed a railroad from Posen to Breslau. 1874 GREEN Short Hist. x. §2. 752 The hacks of Grub Street were superseded by publicists of a high moral temper and literary excellence.

But the last citation is from 1874, so it’s possible the sense is obsolete. Is it? Or have I simply missed it in my wide reading? As always, I await the multifarious verdict of my Varied Readers.
Incidentally, my apologies if you were unable to comment yesterday (as at least one reader who sent me an e-mail was); the site was having problems, which have since been corrected. (That’s also why there was no post for yesterday.) Thanks much to the good folks at Insider Hosting for their response to my anguished outcry!)


  1. michael farris says

    I agree that its use in English with that meaning is obselete and not advised.
    And, considering the connotations of dishonesty (in terms of hype and/or damage control) that the word can inspire in many US speakers, I don’t think that a Russian публицист (or Polish publicysta) would want to be known as a ‘publicist’ in English.

  2. I think pundit has displaced it in that meaning.

  3. Pundit is excellent—I’m adding it to my dictionary forthwith!

  4. I’m with you — I’d never heard it used that way. (And I completely agree with michael farris’s comment.)

  5. Yeah, but pundits tend to be skeezy too. Maybe this is one of those recession things, like”janitor”, where we keep renaming something in order to keep it from being seen as bad.

  6. Never heard of the word in that sense, but an up-to-date Chambers marks it ‘rare’ rather than obsolete.

  7. Yeah, but pundits tend to be skeezy too.
    It’s a shame that the Indians have switched to a different spelling in English for the “Vedic scholar” meaning of the word, which is emphatically not skeezy. As it is, Alan Dershowitz and Christopher Hitchens, while very representative among political pundits, bring something very very skeezy to the word.

  8. “Vulgarisation” is a somewhat similiar example — it’s much more favorable a word in French than the English cognate is.

  9. michael farris says

    I associate ‘pundits’ with partisan tv and radio and not so much print. I think the (ungainly) closest equivalent might be ‘political analyst’ (though that has connotations of campaign management to me…)

  10. It’s actually a good thing that the Indians write “pandit” now.

  11. “Commentator”? “Political columnist”? Whatever they’re called, we have a lot of them here in DC.

  12. Since comments are closed on the “echelon” article, I’ll point out here that you can’t put your finger in a hole in a dyke — earthen cofferdams are tens of meters thick, and they don’t get holes, they collapse.

  13. I recall seeing publicist used in this sense in histories written in the mid-twentieth century — describing nineteenth century figures.

  14. Language (m)user says

    Speaking as an Indian (and one who has had much truck with Pandits in the past),I have 2 comments:
    1. In everyday Indian English usage, spelling varies between ‘pundit’ and ‘pandit’ — both are acceptable, and used interchangeably.
    2. Pandits, remember are the brahmin elite; given the relations of power that exist among various caste/ class stratifications in India, Pandits can be quite skeezy too!

  15. Siganus Sutor says

    LH : « Elsewhere he quotes a “French publicist.” »
    Did he mean a pubard? Or, as some publicitaires themselves say, playing with some whorish proximity, a “fils de pub”?
    In fact your post has allowed someone to notice this distinction in his own language:
    Publiciste :
    1. (vieilli) Journaliste.
    2. Juriste spécialiste du droit public
    3. (1906 ; anglais publicist) – abusivement – Agent de publicité => publicitaire.
    So it looks as if it is under the bad influence of English that French started to wrongly use publicist instead of publicitaire. A good reason to ban advertising altogether?

  16. Tangentally, and to no-one’s surprise, »Publizist« can have the [written] ‘pundit’ meaning in German (Michael, maybe US usage limits it to people on TV, but I don’t think that is universal). Joachim Fest died a few of days ago and that’s what one of the wire stories described him as.

  17. A few months ago, I made a trip to the dictionary for the same question about the same word, used repeatedly to mean journalist-pundit-public intellectual in Joshua Fogel’s 1984 _Politics and Sinology: The Case of Naito Konan (1866-1934)_. I had never encountered this sense, but the nonchalance with which Fogel uses it suggests it was current more recently than the late 19th century, though I suppose it could have been a deliberately archaic equivalent of a Japanese term (no candidate comes to mind, though).

  18. I felt the same way about the nonchalance with which Lincoln uses it; my guess is that it was fairly current (understood by “the educated reader”) up till, say, WWII, then slowly retreated into the circle of scholars familiar with European usage.

  19. Regarding your query in the “echelon” link about examples like “dam” vs. “GES”: would “night” vs. (French) « le soir » count? English has both “evening” and “night,” and French has both « le soir » and « la nuit », but English “last night we went to the movies” is French « hier soir on est allé(e)s au ciné ».

  20. Siganus Sutor says

    Is it only in the media that a pundit (Hindu scholar) can become a mogul (Muslim emperor)?

  21. Heh.

  22. AHD has for publicist: ‘One who publicizes, especially a press or publicity agent.’ That’s it. Not a columnist, analyst, commentator or pundit in sight.

    I had always understood the term as AHD defines it. On moving to Israel I was amazed to see it used, in Hebrew, with the ‘European’ meaning. פובליציסט publitsist is presumably from Russian or German, and almost certainly via Yiddish. There’s even a term פובליציסטיקה publitsistika, whose Wiki entry, this being the land of opinions (See: Recommendations, Ten, Mt. Sinai), is way, way longer than the parallel English Wiki entry for ‘opinion journalism.’ There are Wiki entries for ‘publitsistika’ in about 20 languages.

    The English Wiki entry for publicist, which follows the AHD definition, says ‘(t)he term “publicist” was coined by Columbia law professor Francis Lieber (1800–1872) to describe the public-like role of internationalists during the late nineteenth century.’ It also notes that ‘(a)n older meaning of the term is closer to pamphleteer: someone who circulates ideas by publishing them, perhaps in ephemeral forms.’ Other than English, there are Wiki entries for this term only in Frisian and Ukrainian. A bit puzzling until I Googled ‘Publizist,’ which took me to the German Wiki entry, and then to the English Wiki entry for ‘pundit,’ and parallel entries in almost 20 other languages.

  23. One of the bad points of MediaWiki software is that when linking across languages in the left sidebar, one and only one article can be linked to a corresponding other-language article. So if you want to link both pundit and publicist to Publizist, you are S.O.L.

  24. When I first encountered pundit (in Russian SF novella of all places!), I assumed that the term referred to an especially sophisticated kind of bandit.

    Indeed, the “pundit” in that story was an evil CIA agent and Sanskrit scholar, disguising himself as a Tibetan monk, being the main villain in general throughout the story. So, the impression stuck.

    I realized only many years later that pundits and bandits are completely different beasts.

  25. January First-of-May says

    One of the bad points of MediaWiki software is that when linking across languages in the left sidebar, one and only one article can be linked to a corresponding other-language article. So if you want to link both pundit and publicist to Publizist, you are S.O.L.

    IIRC, before Wikidata was a thing, such many-to-one links worked perfectly well, up until the interwiki bots came in and tried to link the other-language article to both original articles, and that was a problem.
    (And, IIRC, even such a one-to-many link worked anyway – it just looked far too ugly.)

    Then Wikidata came along, and tried their best to untangle the mess that interwiki links became by then; unfortunately, the solution chosen was “one set of interwiki links per article concept”.
    Which means that, if one language had a single word for a certain concept, and another had two for parts of it, they were liable to become three different sets of interwiki links, in which case none of them would link to each other (at least, as long as both versions existed in other languages; if one of the two was alone in its split or unification, it was sometimes shoehorned in some way).

    There was a somewhat sad example discussed on LH a while back – a certain Biblical character was mostly known in relation to the story of his wife, but his name was known, and his wife’s name wasn’t (or was deuterocanonical at best). So various languages made articles about him (and also his wife) or about his wife (and also him). And one language (Polish, IIRC) even made articles about him and about his wife separately.
    The Wikidata solution? Make two sets of links, for him and for his wife, on the model of the one language that split them, and dump all the “him and his wife” articles in the former category and all the “his wife and him” articles in the latter category. Which was mightily inconvenient for people who wanted to find an article about him (or his wife) in a language that ended up in the wrong category (i.e. on the other side of the split from where they were starting from).
    (Mind you, Biblical study being what it is, there were also articles about the deuterocanonical version of his wife, and about another Biblical character with an extremely similar name who might or might not have been the same guy. But that’s another story entirely.)

    This all, of course, applies to Wikipedia specifically; interwiki links also exist, for example, on Wikia (also using MediaWiki), where the situation is even trickier (especially when Wikia-based sites link to non-Wikia-based sites, or vice versa; and yes, that’s actually a thing).

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