At the time this article was written
Madelaine Albert worked for the research division of the Library of the
National Assembly in Quebec City. Gary Levy was editor of the Canadian
The agenda of the 1983 Canadian Regional
Conference of the Commonwealth Parliamentary Association included a debate
between a parliamentarian and a journalist on a resolution that politician is a
dirty word. (see p. 31)
It is a subject which can be approached in
many ways. The opinions of scholars both classical and contemporary, could be
cited. The results of public opinion polls could be used. Even case studies
focusing on particularly reputable and disreputable politicians might be
relevant. The matter can also be approached more simply, but not less
interestingly, by examining the standard dictionaries.
According to the unabridged Oxford
Dictionary (1961) the term "politician" entered the English language
and was used in a derogatory manner in 1588. Its definition is (1 ) "a
political person, chiefly in a sinister sense, a schrewd schemer"; a
secondary meaning is (2) "one versed in the theory or science of
governing; one skilled in politics; one practically engaged in conducting the
business of the state".
The United States has no equivalent to the
Oxford Dictionary so one must look at several sources. The unabridged Webster
Dictionary (1959) goes along with Oxford in both its primary and secondary
meanings: (1) "a politic person, especially a schrewd or crafty
schemer"., (2) "one versed in the art or science of government: one
actively engaged in conducting the business of a government".
Another American dictionary Funk and
Wagnalls (1954) agrees with Webster. It defines a politician as: (1) "one
who is engaged in politics; one who seeks to sub-serve the interests of a
political party merely: especially, one who uses politics for private
advantage; a spoilsman: a political schemer., (2) "one versed in politics:
one skilled in political science or administration; a statesman".
On the other hand the unabridged Random
House Dictionary (1967) gives a neutral definition first: (1) "a person
who is active in party politics" and only later adds (2) "a seeker or
holder of public office who is more concerned about winning favour or retaining
power than about maintaining principles".
In marked contrast to the British and
American sources, none of the Canadian dictionaries consulted (Gage 1983,
Houghton Mifflin 1980 or Winston 1976) gave a pejorative sense to their primary
meaning of "politician". Gage, for example, defined a politician as
(1) "a person holding office" and (2) "a person active in
politics, especially one seeking political office".
For purposes of comparison it is interesting
to see what two standard French sources, Robert and Larousse, have to say about
the term politicien. According to Le Grand Larousse (1976) the word has a
définite péjorative connotation: "personne qui se consacre à la politique,
homme rusé et artificieux". Le Grand Robert (1966) is less categoric
giving a neutral meaning but adding, lPlus couramment avec une nuance
In Quebec politicien has traditionally been
defined in a neutral way giving it a sense much closer to that of English
Canada than to France. The dictionary by Louis-Alexandre Bélisle (1974) defines
politicien simply as "qui s'occupe de politique". Recently, however,
the Office de la langue française du Québec, decreed that politicien has a
derogatory connotation. The correct term is homme politique (ou femme
politique). The same point is made in Translation Bulletin no. 67 published by
the federal Secretary of State Department.
It appears, therefore. (from the admittedly
narrow perspective of the dictionary) that, "politician" (or
politicien) is definitely derogatory in Great Britain and France. It is
pejorative by a two to one mar. gin (with possibilities for a recount) in the
United States. In Canada, however, it is not pejorative, except in Quebec,
which is still undecided.