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6 August 2015

The popularity of politicians can sometimes be a hard thing to understand. The high regard in which various blowhards, reprobates and general ne’er-do-wells are held can be baffling. Conversely, many dedicated and honourable public servants can’t even get the time of day from their electorate. It can be hard to know why. Charisma? Gravitas? Too much or too little of either? What makes a public official matter to people or not? One possible way to gauge the esteem in which a politician is held is to assess their impact on wider culture. Are they one of the lucky relatively few to “transcend” their trade?

It was interesting to read this week about an accolade (of dubious sorts) for Germany’s Chancellor Angela Merkel. Apparently a new verb inspired by Frau Angela – “merkeln” – could be the top pick in a poll of new words in popular usage among the country’s youth. If you are engaged in some “merkeln-ing”, basically you are being indecisive or non-committal, traits that Merkel’s critics claim she has and displays in abundance. So to stay somewhere without doing anything – as those German sceptics claim will be the case if Merkel does indeed bid for a fourth term – is “to merkeln”.

Yes, this is public recognition though not necessarily quite the right sort. But in politics is all publicity good publicity? To test the efficacy of this cliché perhaps it’s worth trying out some other new verbs inspired by current and recent global leaders.

To “silvio”: this verb of Italian extraction is a handy catch-all for pretty much every transgression and misdemeanour you can rustle up in public life.

To “hollande”: the arrival for or flight from nefarious or extramarital activity by motorised scooter. (A popular move among philanderers eager to conceal their identity using a crash helmet.)

To “trump”: a rediscovered gem, formerly suggestive of a lavishly toupeed indifference with regard to everyday people’s problems; now redeployed as a byword for mildly to strongly offensive nationalism, unsavoury political opportunism – and lavishly toupeed indifference to the general public.

To “putin”: to steamroller things (ideas, political rivals, small nations) by force, or threat of said, while engaging in distraction tactics such as nude fishing or bear wrestling. This is merely a flavour of the lexicographical options available for some of the globe’s most prominent figures. Maybe given some of the excesses to which I elude, Frau Merkel should be fairly happy with a mere spot of “merkeln”.

And perhaps that’s the true gauge of political popularity – if you are lampooned by your critics for not doing very much, as Angela Merkel has been, then the chances are that history will judge you rather more kindly than the miscreants who have spent their years in high office “silvio-ing”, “trump-ing” and “putin-ing” their way from one embarrassment to another.

Tom Edwards is Monocle 24’s executive producer.


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