as defined by Raymond Williams in Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society
(London, 1976: Fontana), pp. 198-199.

Home page at this website (Philip Tagg, Liverpool) Home
Access to texts by P Tagg and other authors Online Texts


'Popular' was originally a legal and political term, from popularis (Latin = belonging to the people). An action popular, from C15, was a legal suit which it was open to anyone to begin. 'Popular estate' and 'popular government', from C16, referred to a political system constituted or carried on by the whole people, but there was also the sense (see 'common') of 'low' or 'base'. The transition to the predominant modem meaning of 'widely-favoured' or 'well-liked' is interesting in that it contains a strong element of setting out to gain favour, with a sense of calculation that has not quite disappeared but that is evident in a reinforced phrase like 'deliberately popular'. Most of the men who have left records of the use of the word saw the matter from this point of view, downwards. There were neutral uses, such as North's 'more popular, and desirous of the common people's good will and favour' (1580) (where 'popular' was still a term of policy rather than of condition), and evidently derogatory uses, such as Bacon's 'a Noble-man of ancient Family, but unquiet and popular' (1622). Popularity was defined in 1697, by Collier, as 'a courting the favour of the people by undue practices'. This use was probably reinforced by unfavourable applications: a neutral reference to 'popular ... theams' (1573) is less characteristic than 'popular error' (1616) and 'popular sicknesse' (1603) or 'popular disease' (C17-C19), in which an unwelcome thing was merely widespread. A primary sense of 'widely favoured' was clear by C18; the sense of 'well liked' is probably C19. A C19 American magazine observed: 'they have come to take "popular" quite gravely and sincerely as a synonym for good'. The shift in perspective is less than evident. 'Popular' was being seen from the point of view of the people rather than from those seeking favour or power from them. Yet the earlier sense has not died. Popular culture was not identified by the people but by others, and it still carries two older senses: inferior kinds of work (cf. 'popular literature', 'popular press' as distinguished from 'quality press'); and work deliberately setting out to win favour ('popular journalism' as distinguished from 'democratic journalism' or 'popular entertainment'); as well as the more modern sense of well-liked by many people, with which of course, in many senses, the earlier senses overlap. The recent sense of 'popular culture' as the culture actually made by people for themselves is different from all these; it is often displaced to the past as 'folk culture' but it is also an important modem emphasis. The range of senses can be seen again in 'popularise', which until C19 was a political term, in the old sense, and then took on its special meaning of presenting knowledge in generally accessible ways. Its C19 uses were mainly favourable, and in C20 the favourable sense is still available, but there is also a strong sense of simplification, which in some circles is predominant.

In mid C2O popular song and popular art were characteristically shortened to 'pop', and the familiar range of senses, from unfavourable to favourable, gathered again around this. The shortening gave the word a lively informality but opened it, more easily, to a sense of the trivial. It is hard to say whether older senses of 'pop' have become fused with this use: the common sense of a sudden lively movement, in many familiar and generally pleasing contexts, is certainly appropriate.