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Etymologically, 'opinion' has at least one foot in the idea of being able to think independently, of owning one's thoughts, and the other in the idea of choice, of being able to have preferences, judge something one way or another, or take one of several positions on a controversial issue. Having opinions implies being cognitively autonomous, independent, but also somewhat unpredictable.
Although the word 'public' comes to us from Latin: as a noun it meant 'people,' and as an adjective, it meant 'accessible to all,' not restricted to private use. Two independent historians of the French revolution, Keither Baker (1990) and Mona Ozouf (1988) have suggested that the noun phrase 'l'opinion pub-lique' was invented and gained currency during the 18th century. They identified the word 'public opinion' as a purely linguistic concept, void of a fixed or defi-nite referent. As a rhetorical device, 'public opinion' functioned similar to "pub-lic tribunals," invoking the latter’s political legitimacy.
Today, newspapers tell us that public opinion favors one candidate over an-other, decides an election, is concerned about an issue, is against a proposed legislation, likes to hear certain things, expresses its convictions and acts accordingly. We read that public opinion can kill the reputation of a person, convict an accused, and that political leaders cannot rule against it or eventually fail. In the news, public opinion appears to be an amazingly powerful political actor.
Date Posted: 06 March 2008