In my latest column for the Visual Thesaurus, I take a look at a certain four-letter word that’s dominating the news lately. No, not that one. Not that one, either. I’m talking about poll.
Full access to the column is restricted to subscribers. Here’s a sample:
Time magazine, known in its early years for its inventive language, is responsible for an enduring poll coinage first seen in print in 1939: pollster, a person who conducts opinion polls—another term first recorded in 1939, although the practice of opinion polling in the US goes back to 1824. The -ster suffix “is slightly jazzy (jokester, trickster, hipster),” [William] Safire wrote in his Political Dictionary, “and not at all scientific; many people in the survey business resisted it at first but now put up with it.” What Safire didn’t note: many modern -ster compounds have unsavory overtones: mobster, gangster, tipster, bankster. (Not to mention the much older monster, which goes back to Chaucer’s era.)
In the 70-plus years since pollster was coined, polling has become more widespread and more scientific. Exit polls (first usage: 1976) catch voters as they leave a polling place to take the pulse of an election. Flash polls, which “quickly reach a target audience with a time-sensitive goal”—often just a matter of hours—were made possible by online survey methods and statistical-inference techniques. There are polls of polls that compile the results of multiple polls from different sources; poll trackers, which obsessively analyze those results; and websites such as FiveThirtyEight devoted to poll aggregation and election forecasting.
Blog bonus! Grammar Table—an actual traveling table staffed by Ellen Jovin—runs frequent Twitter polls on English-usage topics. Here’s a recent one.
You and a birder friend are about to jump out of an airplane, and your friend is nervous. To relax your friend, you say, "Imagine you __________ (are, were) able to fly like a bar-tailed godwit."— Grammar Table (@grammartable) October 17, 2020