Trend Watch


President Obama tries his hand at lexicography during a recent press conference.

Speaking at a conference in Canada, President Obama responded to the characterization of some of Donald Trump’s rhetoric as “populist.” Without naming the Republican candidate, Obama prefaced his remarks by saying “maybe somebody can pull up in a dictionary quickly, the phrase populism.”

He then went on to mention his desire to help children, the poor, and workers have equal and fair access to opportunities, saying: “I suppose that makes me a populist,” before taking aim at Donald Trump:

Somebody else who has never shown any regard for workers, has never fought on behalf of social justice issues…in fact have worked against economic opportunity for workers and ordinary people, they don't suddenly become a populist because they say something controversial in order to win votes. That’s not the measure of populism.

Populist means “a believer in the rights, wisdom, and virtues of the common people.” Appropriately enough in this context, the term was coined as the name of a political party in the United States. Known as the People’s Party or the Populist Party, it existed from 1892 until 1896, when it merged with the Democratic Party. Populist comes from the Latin word for “the people,” populus.

Not only did President Obama mention “a dictionary,” his explanation of the definition of a populist helps explain why so many people looked this word up online.

So I would just advise everybody to be careful about suddenly attributing to whoever pops up at a time of economic anxiety the label that they’re populist.

The initial data for this spike of populist also showed spikes in populous and populace, etymologically related words that have similar pronunciations, indicating that many people heard or saw the president’s remarks before reading news accounts.

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