May I Have a Word

Sunday's New York Times Week in Review section taught me a new term I'd like to propose for admission to the English language: gosudarstvennik. In fact, I'll follow the Times editors in giving its naturalization a boost by not italicizing it henceforth. It's a mouthful -- reminds me of Florence King's quip that today's American editors would advise Fyodor Dostoevsky to change his name to Ted Dost -- but nonetheless an intriguing concept. In a piece on Avigdor Lieberman, the new foreign minister of Israel, Clifford J. Levy explains:

Tatyana A. Karasova, head of the Israel department at the Institute for Oriental Studies in Moscow, said Mr. Putin and Mr. Lieberman had a rapport because they are both "gosudarstvenniks" -- a term that derives from the Russian word for state or government and implies a person who likes wielding official power. "Putin, as a gosudarstvennik, can really understand another gosudarstvennik like Lieberman," she said.

(I asked some of my local Slavic gurus about the Karasova/Levy definition, and they have their doubts; they consider the word a more general Soviet-era euphemism for an influential political insider. Levy 's use of it may not be the originally Russian sense but a subtly hostile repurposing by the British journalist and blogger Edward Lucas, author of The New Cold War.  Never mind the pedigree; it's an irresistible concept.)

You don't have to be Russian, or Israeli, to be a gosudarstvennik. The term also helps distinguish those American, Western European, Asian, and other leaders who relish wielding authority from the more reticent. Dick Cheney clearly is one, Joe Biden not. George Washington consciously decided to reject the role. (I love The Onion's take on this.) John F. Kennedy wasn't; Lyndon Johnson may have been the most natural since Andrew Jackson.

Gosudarstvennik isn't an exclusively political concept. One broader definition might be a company man or woman who runs the company. Not every CEO, and especially not all company founders, are gosudarstvenniks. Henry Ford was; his only child and successor, Edsel Ford, was not and proved to be doubly jinxed in death as a namesake of failure.

To conservative critics, Barack Obama is a stealth gosudarstvennik, advancing the power of the state step by step in response to real or perceived crises (as of course George W. Bush and Congress did after Sept. 11). To some liberals he is doing the opposite, compromising where he had promised reforms. (The Onion, again.) Whatever course he takes, I don't think we've heard the last of this expression.



Presented by

Edward Tenner is a historian of technology and culture, and an affiliate of the Center for Arts and Cultural Policy at Princeton's Woodrow Wilson School. He was a founding advisor of Smithsonian's Lemelson Center.

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register.

blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

The Best 71-Second Animation You'll Watch Today

A rock monster tries to save a village from destruction.

Video

The Case for Napping at Work

Most Americans don't get enough sleep. More and more employers are trying to help address that.

Video

A Four-Dimensional Tour of Boston

In this groundbreaking video, time moves at multiple speeds within a single frame.

Video

Who Made Pop Music So Repetitive? You Did.

If pop music is too homogenous, that's because listeners want it that way.

Video

Stunning GoPro Footage of a Wildfire

In the field with America’s elite Native American firefighting crew

More in Technology

From This Author

Just In