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« Media Analyst: Reading the News is Futile (Andrew) | Main | By George, those books are late! »

April 16, 2010


Well, I think both words have really become English words by now, so it's really rather irrelevant to insist that they keep the exact meanings they had in their home languages. It's just the way humans use language: begging and stealing words from other languages has been going on as long as there have been languages, probably. If this seems unfair, it would be easy to find many English words that have been adopted in other languages and given meanings that we native English speakers would scratch our heads about.

Jon, I am not insisting on purity here. I take the English (in this case American) versions of both words at their face value, exactly as you say. Kabuki = useless posturing; Pundit(ry)= useless erudition.

Words transform when they cross language and geographic barriers and usually, that makes things more interesting. I am just pointing out the irony of Lackman making a big deal of the misuse of a Japanese word while all the time making the same mistake with the Indian one. It was funny, that's all.

Well, I think that sounds just exactly like the use of the Yiddish term "Chochem". Chochem to means a learned man, and was traditionally used with great respect. In slang, however, it has become an ironic term for someone believing he is so smart - a smartass.

The irony is sweet. How many times have I read the word "pundit" without sensing the echoes of "pandit" and "pandect"? Approximately zillions. Yet every time I hear "Kabuki" applied to a political spectacle I register the use as figural. This is one of those frequent eye-opening "duh!" moments, for which I thank you, Ruchira. Too bad Mr. Lackman on his high horse misses it.

The pejorative sense of 'useless erudition' or 'useless posturing' seems to be a relatively recent cast to the meanings of 'pundit' and 'kabuki'. The original dictionary meanings don't particularly seem to indicate these terms were meant to be used in a negative manner. That flows from the frequent 'spitting out' of those terms by usually hate-mongering talk show hosts.

Yeah. With frequent, loose usage, the "wise man" became the "wise guy" and serious drama became melodrama.

Even the current OED definitions of Kabuki and pundit fail to include their sarcastic usages. If Lackman's history is accurate, that could be a failure of the OED. On the other hand, they may tolerate a good spell of ironic usage. A similar example would be "genius," which is often used ironically: "Learn how to signal, genius!" But if Lackman's misreading of Kabuki is evidence of a wider deviation in its meaning, it probably ought to be recognized.

Ruchira : Pandit may have come to mean a learned person in Indian languages, but your example of Nehru may be inapt. He is called Pandit not as an honorific but because he is from a family of Kashmiri Pandits, a regional subset of Brahmans. You will recall that his brother-in-law used Pandit as a surname and varna identifier.

You are right. I thought of that vaguely remembered fact of Nehru's family name only later. I could have picked some other Indian scholars / leaders instead of Nehru; for example, Pt. Ishwar Chandra Vidyasagar, whose name bore bookends of honorifics meaning the same thing - "learned."

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