Electionspeak: propaganda

Pope Gregory XV <em>Picture: Guido Reni, 1575–1642</em>
Pope Gregory XV Picture: Guido Reni, 1575–1642
By Betty Kirkpatrick

Are you one of a decreasing number of people who read at least some of the political information directed at you with avid agreement? Or do you dismiss the whole lot as political propaganda in which you have little interest? Certainly, the use of the word propaganda increases greatly during political elections.

Originally, the word propaganda was used in quite a neutral way. It could, for example, refer to the dissemination of educational information which set out to persuade people to do something good or public-spirited – or to the information so disseminated. Thus, a poster appealing to people to report pick-pocketing crimes to the police might once have been described as propaganda.

Nowadays, however, propaganda is usually used in a decidedly derogatory way. The elements of information and persuasion are still there, but the aim of modern so-called propaganda is to influence the recipient of information into changing their opinions and attitudes to accord with those of the provider of the propaganda.

The ideas presented in the propaganda are far from impartial and may be false or deceptive, grossly distorted and usually very selective. Propaganda often elicits an emotional response, rather than a rational or intellectual one.

The hope of purveyors of propaganda is to try to brainwash as many people as possible into believing their message. Improvements in communication, starting with the printing press and continuing with radio and television, were a boon to propagandists. Now that we are positively awash with means of communication, they must be in heaven.

Propaganda is now usually used in connection with the spread of information in a political contest, although it has been used in modern times in connection with war. However, it has a religious, rather than a political or military, background.

The word came into English from the Congregatio de propaganda fide, meaning the congregation for propagating the faith. This was the name of a committee set up by Gregory XV in 1622 to direct the spread of the gospel throughout the world.

The word propaganda was derived from the Latin verb propagare – which, in turn, was derived from the noun propago, meaning cutting or scion. The verb was originally used as a botanical term and is the source of the English verb propagate, to cause to grow. This later extended its meaning and came to mean to extend or spread.

Betty Kirkpatrick is the former editor of several classic reference books, including Chambers Twentieth Century Dictionary and Roget’s Thesaurus. She is also the author of several smaller language reference books, including The Usual Suspects and Other Clichés published by Bloomsbury, and a series of Scots titles, including Scottish Words and Phrases, Scottish Quotations, and Great Scots, published by Crombie Jardine.

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