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Rove's 'Mob' Remark: An Age-Old Social Slur

By Monica Hesse
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, August 15, 2007

In explaining the timing of his pending resignation, Karl Rove told the Wall Street Journal, "I'm not going to stay or leave based on whether it pleases the mob."

The mob?

It's a three-letter grenade of a word -- so French Revolution, so frothy-mouthed peasants torching the streets.

Whether deployed innocuously or insidiously as a substitute for a neutral word like "people," it turns a statement into a putdown, a transformation immediately noted by Rove critics. From Gawker: "Only a mastermind could cast the voice of the people as a mob." Wrote Eugene Robinson in this newspaper: "Benighted fools who don't blindly trust his honesty or fully appreciate his genius are nothing more than 'the mob.' " The word is rooted in mobile vulgus, an ancient Latin phrase used by politicians, which translates into "the fickle crowd." Mobile (pronounced mo-bi-leh) referred to the crowd's tendency to change its collective, uneducated mind. In the 17th century, "mobile" was shortened to "mob." (Let us leave aside a discussion of that other Latinate derivative, la Cosa Nostra, or the opposition grass-roots group Mothers Opposed to Bush.)

The official definition of "mob" now:

(a) The disorderly and riotous part of the population.

(b) The common mass of people; the lower orders; the uncultured or illiterate.

"With most words you expect to have some change in semantics," says Ben Zimmer, the editor for Oxford University Press's American dictionaries. "This one has stayed surprisingly similar to its pejorative roots."

As in, "The mob has many heads, but no brains." (Thomas Fuller, British writer of the 17th century)

It is a word designed to rile, implying as it does that the people are not only (a) stupid, but (b) stupid in a collective cow-herd sense. (Americans would always rather be stupid in an independent way. It's a rugged-individualism thing.)

Perhaps proving this very cow-herdedness, however, many have tried to suggest our system of government is all mobbed up by brandishing a Thomas Jefferson quote: "A democracy is nothing more than mob rule, where fifty-one percent of the people may take away the rights of the other forty-nine."

Sorry, guys. The esteemed founder never said it. The folks at Monticello's research library witheringly say that old saw has been dogging him for years.

Those who attempt to use the word today speak at their own peril -- and would do best to pay attention to their articles: "When people talk about a mob, they just mean a disorderly group of people," says Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at the University of California at Berkeley who has studied political language. The phrase " the mob," says Nunberg, has very different connotations. "It suggests undemocratic condescension. Nobody talks about 'the rabble' anymore, either. Nowadays we don't use words like that."

And yet we, the people, are a heck of a lot closer to the original definition of "mob" then we've been in a long time. Mobile? You betcha. Not only do we still have the warp-speed ability to change our minds (Love/hate/love/hate/love Lindsay Lohan), but now we've also got warp-speed ways to disseminate that mind-changing among the masses (another iffy word). Think of what chaos the Romans could have created with texting and blogging technologies.

Rove, widely acknowledged as a master of understanding the political public and using granular bits of data-mining to target it ever more precisely, likely chose his word with care. And Christian Nold, author of the social commentary "Mobile Vulgus," says Rove's quote is representative of modern politics. Politicians, he says, rely on the public to give them credibility. "But they also have this idea that the public is a thing that needs to be suppressed."

Today, the rabble shows its restlessness with polls, not pitchforks. And when those numbers go the wrong way, a man can become a victim of the mob.

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