public spiritedness

Dan Goncharoff thegonch at GMAIL.COM
Fri May 6 15:41:00 UTC 2011

In a NYTimes Op-Ed piece dated May 5, 2011, David Brooks writes the following:

"The first citizens of this country erected institutions to protect
themselves from their own shortcomings. We’re familiar with some of
them: the system of checks and balances, the Senate, etc. More
important, they believed, was public spiritedness — a system of habits
and attitudes that would check egotism and self-indulgence.

As Kristol points out in the essay, the meaning of the phrase “public
spiritedness” has flipped since the 18th century. Now we think a
public-spirited person is somebody with passionate opinions about
public matters, one who signs petitions and becomes an activist for a

Is he correct about the change in meaning of “public spiritedness”
over time? Any idea when and why it changed?


The American Dialect Society -

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