With midterm elections just around the corner, you can hardly get through a day without hearing charges of political corruption or wrong doing of some sort—cronyism, nepotism, or junketeering. Would it surprise you to learn that the original meaning of two of those three was positive and not the negative connotation associated with it today?
Cronyism refers to political favoritism and by implication—corruption. But it wasn’t always so.
Crony derives from the Greek word khronios, meaning long-lasting, which was based on khronos—Greek for time. Back at Cambridge in the 17th century, crony was slang for an old friend, a chum, a long-standing pal.
Fast forward to the 19th century in the US and cronyism was associated with the appointment of friends to positions of influence and authority, regardless of their qualifications. The same idea applies to crony capitalism—suggesting an economic system in which success depends on cozy relationships between business and government officials.
Nepotism refers to another level of favoritism—showing preferential treatment to relatives, most often see the practice of hiring family members, again with no regard to their qualifications. The practice originated in the papacy when popes and bishops assigned their nephews to cardinal positions. The term nephew was a euphemism for a natural born son. Today, nepotism is practiced in politics and business as well as entertainment and religion.
Another word that originally had a positive, even festive meaning that has acquired a negative political connation is junket. In 14th century Medieval Latin, a junket or jonquet was a reed basket used to carry fish. A century later it had acquired the meaning of feast or banquet—probably the first concept of a picnic basket. That expanded to include the idea of a pleasure trip and the next thing you know, junket describes a trip or tour a government official takes at public expense. It may be a legitimate fact-finding tour, but more often the public considers such jaunts another form of political corruption.
I don’t know about you, but I hate to see perfectly good words devolve into negative associations. But even more, I hate to see the public disillusioned with the democratic process.