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Word of the Month: Demotic

David Zapatka

I attend a five-day conference every summer where experts are brought in to speak about a wide variety of topics. This year’s annual gathering had 218 speakers lecturing, hosting interactive gatherings and running tournaments on 308 interesting and entertaining topics. Being a lifelong student, I’m in my element when I can learn from experts in a vast field of disciplines. Just to give you a flavor, here are some of the lectures I attended: Amazing Bird Migration, Why Is War Decreasing and Societies Becoming Less Violent?, Black Swan Events and Antifragility, The Explosion of World Interest in Egypt, Lock Picking, Meditation, Celebrating Isaac Asimov, Let’s Go To Mars, Surviving Jonestown – The Resiliency of the Human Spirit, Enforcing News Media Ethics, 70 years of Mad Magazine, An Archaeology of Atlantis – Plato’s Dialogues, Asteroids, Ion Propulsion and NASA’s Dawn Mission to Vesta and Ceres, and Geocaching. Does this sound like fun or what?

Attending the lecture on the explosion of world interest in Egypt, I was exposed to a cartouche that translated hieroglyphic and demotic portions of ancient Egyptian texts, which led me to this month’s Word of the Month – demotic.

Demotic: adjective de·mot·ic | di-ˈmä-tik 1. of, relating to, or written in a simplified form of the ancient Egyptian hieratic writing. 2. of or relating to the form of Modern Greek that is based on everyday speech.

History and etymology: borrowed from Greek dēmotikós “of the people, common, ordinary, of the cursive Egyptian script,” from dēmótēs “one of the people, commoner” (from dêmos “people” + -tēs, suffix of persons) + -ikos –ic.

First known use of the word demotic: 1822.

You may recognize the root of demotic from words like “democracy” and “demography.” The source of these words is the Greek word dēmos, meaning “people.” Demotic is often used in everyday forms of language (as opposed to literary or highbrow versions). It originally designated a form of ancient Egyptian cursive script, which by the fifth century BC had come into use everywhere in Egypt for business and literary purposes (in contrast to the more complex, hieratic script retained by the clergy). Demotic has a newer specialized sense as well, referring to a form of modern Greek that is based on everyday speech and that, since 1976, has been the official language of Greece.

Demotic used in a sentence in the news:

Sports have always been a more demotic proposition. — Joseph Epstein, WSJ, “Don’t Take Me Out to the Ballgame—I Can’t Afford It,” July 12, 2018.

“But the words Perdita speaks, defending the aesthetics of the natural over the artificial and refined, could be applied as well to the ambitious use of demotic language, a practice that, at the time Shakespeare wrote, was still new.” — Marilynne Robinson, New Republic, “The Luther Legend,” Dec. 12, 2017.

What dēmos root words are you familiar with? Please submit your experiences, your thoughts on this month’s column or any word you may like to share along with your insights and comments to [email protected].