This word has nothing to do with Chattanooga (except for inasmuch as it probably has some chatterati in it, as would any town big enough to have a TV station) or anyone named Chatterton or Chatterjee (allowing that someone of either name may be a member of the chatterati). No, it’s a blend made through forcing an Anglo-Saxon verb (chatter) onto a Latin-derived pseudomorpheme (-erati, the ending of literati). It’s like a fish tied to a fowl – or perhaps like some cross-breed between the one and the other.

Well, we know chatter. Originally it’s what magpies do – and other fast-vocalizing birds too, at first including those that are now said to twitter. Now we more often talk of people chattering – as the OED puts it so nicely, “Of human beings: To talk rapidly, incessantly, and with more sound than sense.” And there’s more than enough of that when politics is the news of the day. There’s a whole chattering class, as they are often called, prattling in their rat-a-tat fashion, a bit like woodpeckers except that it’s their heads that are the wood and they’re pecking at each other. They strive to read the entrails that will foretell the future, but really they’re just eating each other’s chitterlings.

As to literati, it means in origin “the literate people”, but now that literacy is nearly universal, it means “the highly literate people”. It has a taste of an elite – a sort of illuminati, but not secret and not necessarily pulling the reins of power. So it’s a nice base for adding, for instance, glitter to make glitterati, “the glittering stars of fashionable society” (often pursused by paparazzi) – or, more recent, chatter to make chatterati, “the chattering class”. These words have a hardness of feel, possibly brittle but also possible as untriturable as a diamond. At the very least, the words suggest the clicking of teeth as jaws rattle on.

The chattering class, in their modishness and striving to be au courant, seem naturally to foster lexical syncretism. Another word for the same set is the commentariat – a term that, like chatterati, first showed up in the 1990s; it’s a merger of commentary with proletariat (it also smacks of secretariat).

But now political commentary is not just the preserve of television talking heads, audibly rattling out their sound and fury in a human teletype patter. Blogs are an important source of political information and opinion (inasmuch as there is such a thing as an important source of political opinion – politics and its commentary suffer from a surfeit of opinion and a deficiency of fact), so now we also have the bloggerati. Which is an especially amusing word morphologically, as it involves two mid-morpheme clippings – the -erati one, but also the blog one, since blog is short for weblog, a compound of web and log. On the other hand, its voiced stops give it a kind of bluntness and dullness that make it a less appealing word.

But the real problem with blogs (I’m being sarcastic, by the way, when I say “problem”) is that they allow expression of thought, fact, and insight in depth (they don’t enforce it, but it’s possible). Ack! Who wants that? Isn’t it much better to get it in short, quick bursts, limited to 140 characters? OK, yes, some of those 140 characters can be a link to a lengthy article. But the premise is really that one can say something useful, something valuable, in 140 characters (or fewer) – short bursts of chattering, of twittering: discourse gone to the birds. Naturally, those who chatter on Twitter – in particular on popular current topics – are lately called the twitterati.

One response to “chatterati

  1. Pingback: tergiversation | Sesquiotica

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