Thu 21 October 2021

(n.) political bossism; a political system in which one powerful figure wields considerable power or influence

The first is that it could win you a game of Scrabble one day. In 1982, a professional player named Karl Khoshaw played caziques (an official alternative spelling caciques) in an international Scrabble tournament and, with a score of 392 points, set the record for the highest-scoring word ever played in a competitive match. Word nerds of the world unite.

The second reason is that, given the current political state of play, it’s also a neat word to describe the ever-more discomforting status quo.

Cacique is a Spanish loanword, first adopted into English in the late sixteenth century. Spanish colonists at that time were busy expanding their influence across the Caribbean, and found this word being used by native Haitians tribespeople to describe their local leaders. Soon the Spanish had adopted it into their own vocabulary, and had started using it more loosely it to refer to any powerful local figurehead—and from there, the word sidestepped its way into English.

Its meaning became less specified over time, however, so that by the late 1800s cacique had started to be “absurdly applied … to mayors of New Mexican towns,” as one nineteenth century Dictionary of Americanisms put it, as well as “any somewhat pompous and self-sufficient man” who wields considerable power over his subordinates. A derivative, caciquism—describing any political system that tolerates this kind of influence or chain of command—emerged in 1903. And it’s that that we’re making this week’s Word of the Week.

Why? Well, President Trump was in town earlier this week, and amidst all the pomp and pomposity, talk soon turned to precisely what a post-Brexit, post-EU trade deal between the United States and the United Kingdom might look like. The NHS, Mr Trump explained, would most definitely be on the table in any such deal. And the UK—by that point, we can presume, negotiating from a considerably weakened position—would be hard pushed to do very much about it.

The toadying Boris Johnsons and Nigel Farages of this entire sorry process were soon being faced with simultaneously explaining how (a) this wouldn’t actually happen, and (b) would actually be a Really Good Thing.

But a Trumpian caciquism? With the United States dissecting our NHS, and wielding largely unrestrained influence over a post-Brexit UK? It’s not exactly the sunlit uplands we were promised back in 2016. And that’s before we’ve even started to consider who might, in turn, be playing cacique to Mr Trump’s USA…  

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