“Like trying to ride two horses with one ass.” – Luke Gromen
The Oxford Dictionary defines a demagogue as “a political leader who seeks support by appealing to the desires and prejudices of ordinary people rather than by using rational argument.” The word has close associations with tyrant, prejudice, and untruthful, and is often preceded by the adjective dangerous. Interestingly, it wasn’t always this way. The word originally meant “a popular leader” and is derived from the Greek dēmagōgós, which combines dēmos (people) with agōgós (leading, guiding).
The changing meaning of demagogue is the result of a phenomenon known as semantic shift, a process by which language evolves over time. Words and phrases derive much of their meaning from the context in which they are expressed, and just as such context can change, so too can the meaning. Semantic shift is the reason why Shakespeare has to be studied and not simply read, and why courts often struggle to adjudicate what lawmakers intended when their bills were originally passed. The decades-long battle over the meaning of the word militia as it pertains to gun rights in the US serves as a prime example.