Sound and Fury: The Making of the Punditocracy

By Eric Alterman | Go to book overview

CHAPTER ONE
The Road to Lippmanndom

The word pundit is a bastardization of die Hindi honorific pandit, which confers on its holder the implication of great learning. Pandit derives from the Sanskrit pandita, meaning “scholar.” Its metamorphosis into the American vernacular owes a great deal to the wives of a group of Rochester, New York, professional men who joined together in 1854 to found a club “devoted to the serious and conscientious investigation of the truth.” Not much in the creativity department, apparently, the men decided to call their club “The Club.” Their wives, however, thinking all this high-mindedness to be a bit much, took to referring to the group as “The Pundit Club” in a facetious reference to the Eastern title. The members were well acquainted with the word’s connotations; one of its members, the Reverend Doctor McIlvaine, had given a report to the group entitled “Observations on the Sanskrit Language,” and soon, in good spirits, they adopted the appellation as their own.

The term meandered into the American public dialogue via an article in the Saturday Review, dated 1862, in which the author noted a point on which “the doctors of etiquette and the pundits of refinement” were likely to differ. The final stage of its etymological development seems to have come from the pen of Henry Luce, who founded Time magazine in 1923. Luce adopted the term pundit, which he derived, most likely, from another well-known club—this a group of Yale undergraduates—and applied to the New York World editorial writer Walter Lippmann.

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