Ben Zimmer: “Now so often surrounded by sarcasm and scorn, the word ‘pundit’ had loftier origins.”

From a Wall Street Journal story by Ben Zimmer headlined “Pundit: From Religious Sage to Political Bloviator”:

As the hours wore on after Election Day without a declared winner in the presidential race, one group in particular had a field day with the electoral uncertainty: television pundits.

The “pundit” is a common denizen of cable-news shows: a commentator or prognosticator, who is not shy about sharing opinions. This past week, for better or worse, punditry was on full and lengthy display while voting returns trickled in from battleground states.

As in the past, the news-show pundits have received their share of abuse. On Monday, Ben Mathis-Lilley made a quixotic proposal on Slate: “Keep the Pundits Off the Air Until There’s a Winner.” The website Fast Company offered a viewer’s guide, “How to watch election coverage online, with pundits other than the network windbags.”

Now so often surrounded by sarcasm and scorn, the word “pundit” had much loftier origins. It goes back to the Sanskrit “pandita” meaning “learned,” which led to the Hindi term of respect “pandit” for a wise person, especially in matters of religion, philosophy and law.

Europeans who traveled to India made note of sagacious “pandits” dating back to the 16th century, when Portugal established a colonial outpost. . . .As early as 1816, the word got extended to learned figures in England, often in ironic contrast to their Indian counterparts.

By the mid-19th century, the modern spelling had eclipsed other variants and “pundits” of the political variety emerged on the American scene, typically portrayed in a sardonic light. An 1852 editorialist in Washington, D.C.’s Weekly National Intelligencer wrote, “We are now told by some of our learned political pundits that our whole Governmental structure is upon a wrong basis, and that we really know nothing of true ‘Liberty and Equality.’”

In 1854, anthropologist Lewis Henry Morgan established The Pundit Club in Rochester, N.Y., with fellow intellectuals in the city. Then at Yale University in 1884, William Lyon Phelps, who would go on to be a noted scholar in the humanities, founded The Pundits as a senior society of “campus wits,” notorious for pulling elaborate pranks.

Two members of Yale’s class of 1920, Briton Hadden and Henry Luce, founded Time Magazine and brought “pundit” to a wider audience as part of “Timestyle,” the magazine’s special lingo (which also included such words as “tycoon” and “kudos”). Hadden, Time’s first editor, made the Yale connection explicit in a 1928 article about his classmate the novelist Thornton Wilder, who was both a “Pundit” as an undergraduate and a “pundit” as an adult.

After Hadden’s death in 1929, Luce took over the editorship and liberally applied the word “pundit” to such commentators as Walter Lippmann and Mark Sullivan, who both wrote political columns in the New York Herald-Tribune and set the stage for modern punditry. . . .

Television news led to much greater visibility for the pundit class, dubbed the “punditocracy” in 1987 by Michael Kinsley, then editor of The New Republic, writing in the opinion pages of The Wall Street Journal. Eric Alterman embraced the term for his 1992 book, “Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy,” defining it as “a tiny group of highly visible political pontificators who make their living offering ‘inside political opinions and forecasts’ in the elite national media.” The ranks of the punditocracy have only swollen since then, as evidenced by this week’s never-ending pundit parade.

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