“Public opinion is such a lucid thing.”

Now, here’s an interesting take on public opinion. Most observers would not choose the term “lucid,” and when I see such a confidently clear but unexpected usage I fly to a big dictionary to see if the student has fallen prey to some thesaurus (which, despite its nominal similarity to Brontosaurus and Tyrannosaurus, has nothing to do with dinosaurs but rather comes to us via Latin from the Greek meaning “treasure” or “collection”) and has chosen some tangential “synonym” for a more appropriate word.

Such was obviously the case for the student who wrote about “a student who demotes another” (a perfectly okay phrase if you substitute “degrades”—and still in the lexicon of school, interestingly enough); the one who referred to a “fragile issue” (read “sensitive” or “delicate”); the one who cautioned that we should not “put circumstances on the right of free speech” (very strange, but if you try putting “conditions” on that right the caution makes sense).

So, when my student here refers to public opinion as “a lucid thing,” is he searching for a word that shares one of the definitions of “lucid”? Does he mean public opinion is in some sense “suffused with light”? Perhaps it is “sane, having full use of its faculties”? “Clear to the understanding, intelligible”? Ah, if it only were those things. We may all think of ourselves as lucid, and our opinions as perhaps even pellucid; but in the aggregate, to the observer, much public opinion is far from this mark, despite the attempts of marketing researchers to parse it.

Fortunately my student went on to define, or clarify, his meaning. Here’s the whole thing:

“Public opinion is such a lucid thing. One minute the public is with you and the next they are against you.”

Ah, that clears it up. Well, actually, it clears up the fact that he does not have “lucid” or any of its relatives in mind. My next recourse as a reader of student papers is to try various alternatives that sound similar to the chosen word. This time, alas, I can think of none. I believe he means “fickle,” but I can’t wrestle the one into the other by rhyme, dominant vowel sound, dominant consonant sound (well, there’s the “l” sound, but not in the same position in the two terms)…the only commonality I can find is that both are trochees. There’s not much inevitability on that basis, though: “silly” or “piebald” would do. Sudden inspiration: could he have meant to write “loony”? That scores on initial consonant, dominant vowel, and stress pattern. Hmmm!

Wherever in more lucid moments his word choice would have landed, I like what he wrote anyway.

In this modern world of ours today (I, too, can speak Freshman!), mistakes can have their moments of glory, and I think this is one of those times. Sometimes my student’s observation seems to be a little closer to the mark than a cynic like me would have thought. Following the vagaries of the great jostle that is the Republican Presidential candidacy quest, for example, with each contender on his or her own little roller coaster of popularity or godhead, I do have moments of believing that public opinion has at least its lucid moments, and those moments are responsible for the fluctuations and vacillations in the polls—”or at least for the downturns,” my Inner Progressive adds.

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About RAB

Teacher of English writing and literature (college-level); academic-freedom activist; editor and copy editor; theater director, costumer, actress, playwright. View all posts by RAB

5 responses to ““Public opinion is such a lucid thing.”

  • yearstricken

    Maybe he thought “lucid” was related to “luck.” One minute you’re lucky and the public is with you; the next minute your luck runs out.

  • Bill Jenks

    The first word that popped into my mind as the one your student seemed to intend was “elusive”:

    : tending to elude: as a : tending to evade grasp or pursuit b : hard to comprehend or define c : hard to isolate or identify

    It fits (almost) the observation expressed in his second sentence, and sounds, at least in its second and third syllables, tantalizingly like “lucid.”

    What do you think, RA?

  • RAB

    Very tempting, Bill. I can actually imagine a student thinking the word was “lusive” (I have other examples of students’ not hearing an initial vowel syllable.) At that point “lusive” or “lucive” typed into a typical word program would prompt the suggestion “lucid.” Quite possible.

  • Gregory Elbin

    Only for the Tea Party (delusional)!

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