Language Corner

Dissecting ‘lodestar’ and other words in the news

September 10, 2018
Image via Public Domain Pictures.

In a week in which President Trump complained anew about the “fake news” of chaos in his administration (more on that later), he also tweet-quoted (gasp!) The New York Times in a positive way:

Among other things, the Times piece was discussing what Arizona Senator Jeff Flake called the “Faustian bargain” Congressional Republicans had with the president. Faust, also known as Faustus or Dr. Faustus, was a successful German alchemist and magician. The legend says he wanted more success and knowledge than he already had, so made a deal with the devil, knowing that he was exchanging his eternal soul for instant gratification on earth.

ICYMI: Why did The New York Times grant anonymity to the op-ed writer?

But Trump was bragging of his popularity, of the Republicans’ “fealty” to him.

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It’s an interesting choice of words, since “fealty” has its roots in feudalism, which most people reject as a political and economic system today. Merriam-Webster says that Francis Bacon described “fealty” as “to take an oath upon a book, that he will be a faithful Tenant to the King.” As the Oxford English Dictionary notes, the earliest use of “fealty,” in the mid-15th century, was “The obligation of fidelity on the part of a feudal tenant or vassal to his lord.” (Emphasis added.)

Feudal tenants did not pledge their “fealty” out of loyalty or respect; they did it because they had no choice. It’s less faith than it is forced loyalty. That certainly seems to fit many reports of the president’s relationships with what a feudal lord might call his “vassals.”

And just what is a “vassal”? The original Latin “vassallus” was a manservant or domestic employee, the OED says. The 15th-century English “vassals” were those “holding lands from a superior on conditions of homage and allegiance.” Though the usage later softened to include “humble servant,” the implication remained that the service was not entirely voluntary.

Needless to say, neither “fealty” nor “vassal” carries positive connotations. A news report talked of a possible successor to Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel who is in “a politically advantageous early position by forcing fealty from among the city’s 50 Democratic ward committeemen”; a book review discussed how Steve Jobs “demands absolute fealty”; an editorial noted that China’s Communist Party “demands fealty.” The juxtaposition of negative words like “forcing” and “demands” merely emphasizes the negative nature of “fealty.”

As for “vassal,” the French finance minister told Bloomberg, “I want Europe to be a sovereign continent not a vassal”; the president of Belarus fired his entire cabinet, saying “We will never become a vassal to anyone” (conveniently not mentioning the republic’s former “fealty” to the Soviet Union) … Well, you get the point.

Finally, we will get to the word of the week: “lodestar.” Until last week, it was not among the most popular lookups on Merriam-Webster. But now, it’s in the top 1 percent, thanks to the anonymous op-ed piece in the Times. Whether this turns out to be the key to unmasking the author, as many claim, or whether the unmasking might come from something more prosaic, it doesn’t dim the light of “lodestar.”

That word has been popular among journalists for some time: It shows up in Nexis over four dozen times in the six months before the op-ed set it on fire. It’s basically a guiding light, but “lodestar” sounds less like a soap opera and more like a word intelligent people should know. At least in journalists’ eyes, perhaps.

However, conspiracy theorists should take note: “Lodestar” was Merriam-Webster’s word of the day just a week before that op-ed piece appeared. Coincidence? Or clue?

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.