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.



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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.

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