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Commenting or commentating on the polls

The prime minister doesn’t ‘commentate’ on opinions polls. Or should that be ‘comment’? Piers Kelly investigates the history of these distinct meanings.

This morning Julia Gillard told Kochie:

I just don’t commentate on opinion polls and there’s a reason for that. We see a lot of opinion polls, we get them at least fortnightly, often we get them more frequently than that. If I spent my time worrying about and commentating on opinion polls then I wouldn’t have the time to get my job done, and the job is more important.

From minute 1:06

The word commentate has been something of an outrage-magnet for language peeves, who like to maintain that a commentator is one who comments but that commentate is not a legitimate word in its own right. This peeve is so well established that if you type ‘commentate’ into the search bar, Google automatically offers the string “commentate is not a word”.

Like many a lexical peeve, this term is a result of back-formation, or the coining of a new word by removing a part from an existing word, and it probably distresses the purists because it seems to allow too much creativity into the process. There is also, I suspect, a generational bias. As Kate Burridge has pointed out, kids who use ‘verse’ as verb (from versus) are chided, yet it was OK for Shakespeare to derive the verb ‘grovel’ from the now-obsolete adverb groveling. (And read our Greg Dickson on verse, admitting to his peeve with good humour.)

As it happens, commentate has been with us for a long time. In British English it has been around since 1794 and even gets an entry in a 1818 revision of Johnson’s dictionary. What’s more, commentate has since become semantically quite distinct from comment.  According to the OED, commentate began to be used in the sense of “To deliver an oral commentary, esp. upon politics or sport”, from 1951. Today, the Oxford Australian Dictionary defines it simply as to “act as a commentator” while The New Oxford American Dictionary adds more detail, “report on an event as it occurs, esp. for a news or sports broadcast; provide a commentary.”

This coincides perfectly with what I imagine the prime minister was driving in her reply to what has now become a ritualised question-and-answer routine: I’m prepared to concede that this is a game but I will not be calling the race for you.

 

 

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