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Molten Words

Molten words are fashionable insults. Like old-fashioned fighting words, they stop conversation by abusing language. Charged with animus, they melt away from their dictionary definitions, and they're so hot that their targets must immediately toss them at new victims.

 'Elite' and 'cynic' head my current list of molten words. I have hosed 'elite' with so much perplexed attention over the past eighteen months that it's no longer too hot for me to hold. As for 'cynic,' it poses  an updated version of the Cretan Liar conundrum: those who deploy it most effectively are likely to be the deepest cynics.

'Elite' troubled me for what seems like years - definitely more than one - before I could pin it down. The pedant in me stuck on the solecism of applying a term rooted in the idea of election to people who might have been appointed or, worse, who might have bought their influence outright. On a more practical level, I objected to the way the word described two related but very different groups: those who exercise power, and those, usually friends and family of the first group, who enjoy the fruits of power (not just limousine service to the best restaurants and the hottest new shows but also admission to top schools) without shouldering any of its responsibilities. Why it took me so long to realize that the right word for the first group - the powerful - was 'expert,' I'll probably never know. As a label for the second group, I venture my own coinage: The bonbonisti, because it's fun to say.

Bonbonisti (refrigerate after opening) are important only because they attract so much envy. If you could choose your parents, it would probably not be without a view to achieving a measure of bonbonista status for yourself. (Come on - be honest.) And why not? Look what the Forty-Third President has made of it. (We'll see how he manages the shouldering.) Americans may be prone to sneer at those who have done nothing to achieve their comforts, but the sneer is mere veneer. It had better be; genuine scorn degrades rapidly into resentment.

Resentment is what keeps 'elite' molten. There can be no resentment without some sort of elite or other, some group with the power to impose demands or withhold benefits from the resentful. I do not mean to suggest that resentment is always imaginary. But it does not sit well on comfortable white Christians in America. You might almost say that there's something cynical about such resentment - but perhaps that's too much molten. Certainly those who fanned the resentment that gave American conservatism its sour, sulking tone - Nixon's 'Southern' strategists - were cynics. How'd I get onto cynics? Could it be that 'elite' and 'cynic' are so molten that they've actually fused? (February 2001)

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