Dear Word Detective: I know you’re the Word Detective and not the Usage Enforcer, but I just read an article in the Washington Post about the current health care debate that reminded me of something that’s been bothering me for the past few months. The author of the piece proposes a new verb: “‘Medagogue’ [meaning] to demagogue the health care issue.” Obviously, “medagogue” is a non-starter, but it’s the use of “demagogue” as a verb that’s been driving me nuts lately. Is this kosher? I can’t think of a simple replacement, but it really grates on my nerves. — Luke Hoover.
Oh boy, here we go. You’re correct — I usually avoid issues of “proper usage” in English, although I’m more than happy to advise folks about what is generally accepted as Standard English at the moment. But the so-called “language wars” over issues such as the use of “hopefully” to act as a meta-modifier of an entire sentence (“Hopefully, Jim will just shut up”) can chug along for another 200 years without me. I don’t plan to spend my time arguing with people who consider “split infinitives” a harbinger of the Apocalypse. The older I get, the more allergic I am to that kind of crazy.
But your question is not in any way crazy. The use of “demagogue” as a verb strikes many people as less than euphonious. “Demagogue” used as a noun, of course, raises no hackles (except those of the target). The root of “demagogue” is actually quite honorable, being the Greek “demagogos,” meaning simply “leader of the people,” and in ancient times that’s all the word meant. In English in the mid-17th century, however, “demagogue” came into use as a noun meaning, as the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) puts it, “a political agitator who appeals to the passions and prejudices of the mob in order to obtain power or further his own interests.” H.L. Mencken more succinctly defined a demagogue as “one who will preach doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.”
The use of nouns as verbs is a pet peeve of usage purists, most of whom are unaware that at least one out of every five common English verbs began life as a noun, and that the transition to use of a given noun as a verb often happened several centuries ago. “Demagogue” is just such a case, appearing as an intransitive verb meaning “to play the demagogue” in the mid-17th century (“When that same ranting fellow Alcibiades fell a demagoging for the Sicilian War,” 1656). The use of “demagogue” as a transitive verb (as in your example “to demagogue the health care issue”) meaning “to deal with (a matter) after the fashion of a demagogue” (OED) is a more recent (1890) and more controversial development. The Usage Panel of the American Heritage Dictionary rejects use of “demagogue” as a transitive verb by a ninety-four percent margin, for instance. And the very fine new Garner’s Modern American Usage (Oxford University Press, 2009) has no real problem with the intransitive form but rates the transitive “demagogue” as a “Stage One Language Change,” meaning that it is generally not yet suitable in Standard English usage.
Your mileage may vary, of course. I suppose “demagogue” as a transitive verb could be useful conversational shorthand, although I wouldn’t use it in serious writing. But, given its popularity in current mass media usage, I wouldn’t be surprised to see it widely accepted sooner than many usage mavens would like. As you note, it’s not easy to think of a simple alternative.