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About This Word: “public”

Posted in About This Word, Viewer Mail by Olivia Smialek

Wordsmyth would like to announce About This Word. This new column is part of our ongoing interest in language and semantic change.
Today’s word: public.  

This guest post was contributed by Dr. Bruce Woll, a member of The People’s Lobby in Chicago and the national Public Banking Institute.  We welcome comments on this post, other important words we use, and the ideas we rely on.

Bruce Woll’s Commentary:

We are fighting for the very idea of the word “public” as an adjective: public institutions, public good, public health, public education, public interest, public psyche, public square, public domain, public broadcasting, public media, public lands, spaces, parks, public transportation, public banks and financial institutions, and public air.

The word ‘public’ has become almost a synonym in the public mind for the word ‘government.’ So we associate ‘public’ with a lumbering bureaucracy, incapable of imagination, innovation, and fresh thinking. A sustained, well funded, well organized, concerted campaign that preaches ‘privatization’ creates this image of government

That campaign has convinced the public that the future belongs to technology. The Silicon Valleys of the world have a corner on the market of innovation. Business-minded private entrepreneurs must think big about public life. The privateers try to kill the public imagination applied to the institutions of self-government.

Therefore, this group also tries to eliminate the word ‘public’s’ role as a noun referring to the citizenry or people of a political party. They plan to split us apart, divide us, and turn us into their image of all against all. These privately-owned institutions of the wealthiest now use government resources to consolidate their own private prosperity and security.

The current battle for the word ‘public’ concerns what Lincoln deemed the task of those who gathered at Gettysburg. Citizens should dedicate themselves to ensuring the “government of the people, by the people, and for the people should not perish from the earth.”

About “Public”

As an adjective, “public” has five definitions. All of its meanings concern matters shared between a community and its government. The examples clarify most of the senses by mentioning government officials in some way.

For more information about “public,” see New Keywords: A Revised Vocabulary of Culture and Society, edited by Tony Bennett.

What are your thoughts on “public?” Do you agree with Bruce’s comments, or do you have your own? If so, we’d love to hear what you have to say!

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Until next time, Happy Wordsmything!