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Essay: The origin of the term ‘leader’

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  • Published: 15 September 2013*
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According to the sociology dictionary, the leader or the ruler is the person exercising power or having great influence within groups of different sizes – societies, nations, communities, organizations, small groups, etc. The defining attribute of the leader is the exercise of leadership, decision-making. In sociology a distinction is made between the formal leader – the person appointed with the institutional leadership function and the informal leader, the person who exercises the greatest influence within the group .

In Romanian linguistics, the political terminology of English origin has not yet been systematically studied. Occasional references are found in studies and articles devoted to English words in general or to particular aspects of English influence.

Linguistic dictionaries include most of the political terms of English origin, from the oldest, with multiple English-language etymology (leader, meeting) to the most recent (leadership, summit, establishment, VIP).

The Phrasal idioms and the semantic expressions connected with this topic are much less represented in some dictionaries than others, where we find terms such as “iron curtain, white collars, money laundering.”

The only Romanian political dictionary, published in 1975 under the supervision of “Ştefan Gheorghiu” Academy, includes among its 1700 articles only 9 terms of English origin: the common nouns “boss, leader, miting, outsider”, the proper nouns “CIA”, “NATO”, the phrase “Gentleman’s agreement” and words derived with suffixes “lobbism” and “machartism”. Being elaborated – as stated in the preface  – “in light of the Marxist-Leninist conception of the Romanian Communist Party (PCR) principles,” the dictionary reflects clichés of communist propaganda, which affects the objectivity of definitions by evaluative statements such as “lobbying remains a place for corruption” ; “NATO is controlled by aggressive political and military circles interested in continuing the arms race”.

The “politicization” of the definitions is met – to a lesser extent – in the dictionary of neologisms (see the definition of “leader”: “leader of a political party or a bourgeois organization”).

With the passing of the years, this term has received new valences. An example of “apparent novelty” would be its use in the field of advertising with the meanings “best product” or “first in a domain”, not registered in Romanian dictionaries, but attested in the BBC English Dictionary : “Connex – the leader of the telecommunication market in Romania” (Adevărul, 10/02/2003, p. 5); “Dacia remains the market leader” (Adevărul, 31/01/2003, p. 6); “Antena 1 dominated the New Year’s Eve program as an audience leader” (Antena 1, 1.01.2003).

In this case, the novelty is more difficult to understand, as it is the widening of the polysemy of an old loan word (Romanian attested in the middle of the nineteenth century) by the recent takeover (after 1989) of a sense in English and easily associated with those already existing in our language.

The repetitive and excessive usage of the term “leader” as the “motto” of the post-December press is mainly explained by extra-linguistic causes of a sociolinguistic and psycholinguistic nature: the impact of English as a “language of globalization”; the international character of the word; favourable social connotations, associated with prestigious environments; the need to replace terms considered “compromised” (e.g. ruler, the beloved ruler – associated with the name of Nicolae Ceaușescu), improper or “blasted” by abusive use. Among the favourable linguistic factors can be mentioned: the age; the French branch with support; the perfect fit in the Romanian language system; the meaningful (large extension), open signification, allowing for various contextual updates. Among the extra-linguistic causes, some belong to the political and social domain, and some may be related to the specifics of the Romanian post-December press.

From a political and social point of view, the main explanation concerns the English status of “lingua franca” or the “language of globalization”, demonstrated by scientific, political, statistical and sociolinguistic arguments in works specifically devoted to this subject or to the process of globalization in general.

An important role in the process of globalization and the dissemination of English political terminology lies in the “democratization of information” through their free movement and the diversification of transmission channels (including the Internet), which carry out an uninterrupted media bombing on both political actors and journalists

Finally, the specificity of the Romanian post-December press (characterized by a great opening to the sources of Western and American information) and the new status of the journalist – seen as a “mediator” between the event and the public, but also as an “opinion leader” – favours the massive penetration of the political terms taken from English.

Thus, the term “leader” has English origin and it was totally assimilated to the Romanian language. In addition to basic meanings, certain meaningful changes also appear under the form of

semantic expansions. These extensions imply the widening of the reference domain and the reduction of the intensity, by neglecting some peripheral meanings from the English definition, which subsequently allows for the removal of contextual-stylistic (combining) constraints. It follows extended political meanings, depoliticized meanings and “stylistic” meanings: the term “leader” appears in Dicţionarul de neologisme  (the Dictionary of neologisms) and in Marele dicţionar de neologisme   (the Great Dictionary of neologisms) with the enshrined meanings in politics (“ruler”) and sports (“team or sport at the forefront of rankings “), and without recorded meaning in advertising is (” Radio Contact – the leader in radio advertising sales “).

The wide range of meanings associated with the current media term “leader” includes a diversification of application fields: political (the Party leader / the MP leader, the leader of the White House), union (the leader of the Trade Mining Unions), artistic (the leader of  “Divertis” group), religious (the supreme spiritual leader of the Taliban). It catches attention the negative meaning of the term (the leader of the trafficker network, mafia leader) and the realization of broad and diverse contextual synonyms: leader/ boss /clan leader, (corrupt) local leader – local baron; leader/ chairman; leader/ prime minister; leader of the Gypsies/ bulibaşă etc.

The polysemy of the term “leader” requires determining the meaning by determinants. Thus, it results relatively stable terms: spiritual leader (Adevărul, 01/04/2003, p. 14), national leader (Adevărul, 29/03/2003, p. 7), opinion leader. The last expression is taken from the English language, from the field of political communication, having a rigorous explanation in certain important works: “The notion of <group journalism> “involves the conditioning of newsgroups through information leaders, those who have the best information directly from the source and giving the tone in the interpretation of the events”,  said Doru Pop.

In the press, the expression “opinion leader” (having a roughly synonymous as “opinion-maker”, according to the newspaper National, 20/01/2003, p. 3) has gained a wider and less exact meaning, as Gabriel Thoveron  observes – from the perspective of the French language: “The expression <opinion leader> has become obsolete and today it is used without any discernment to designate what should be called, for example, notable or pilot personality.”

The meaning of the phrase in question remains vague and imprecise in the context of the Romanian press today: “Differences in wealth between rich and poor is increasing globally, says the latest World Bank study, based on a survey among the 2,600 opinion leaders from 48 countries” (Adevărul, 10/06/2003, p. 5).

In most cases, the term “leader” appears in free phrasal combinations: “NATO leaders,” (Adevărul, 07/11/2002, p. 4); “American military leaders” (Adevărul, 03/05/2003, p. 9); “Moderate Arab leaders” (Adevărul, 04/06/2003, p. 9); “Masonic leaders” (Adevărul, 04/06/2003, p. 3).

From a normative perspective, there can be signalled improper uses of English words in the current press, which can be explained either by the lack of knowledge of the denomination of the term or by the journalist’s desire to express himself in an “elevated” and / or “technical” way. Examples of this are the use of the term “leader” to designate chiefs/ heads of criminal groups: “Mafia leaders” (Adevărul, 14/03/2003, p. 13); “Leader of a group of rockets” (Adevărul, 04/06/2003, p. 10); “Leaders of a terrorist network” (Adevărul, 06/03/2003, p. 10); “Clan leader” (Adevărul, 12/09/2002, p. 15). Equally inappropriate is the use of the term in a commercial context: “the leaders of the fashion house [Chanel]” (Adevărul, 17/06/2003, p. 13) or in the colloquial register (when referring to “Big Brother”: For the first time two leaders, two hard characters have entered the competition” (Prima TV, 08/06/2003). The desire of some publications to counteract the semantic “devaluation” of the abusively used political terms in the current press may lead to pleonastic connections: “Leading leaders” (Adevărul, 18/03/2003, p. 12), “the most important leaders” (Adevărul, 25/05/2003, p. 2);

“big political leaders” (Adevărul, 23/11/2002, p. 10).

In conclusion, the term “leader” in the Romanian language has complex meanings and is of particular importance to publicists and political communication specialists.

(extract from the work “The Local Leader between Identity, Idolatry and Caricature”, written by Georgeta-Gabriela Udrea)

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