Tuesday, April 7, 2009


coterie [KOH-tə-rē]
n. a group of people who associate closely; an exclusive group; clique

[From Old French coterie ("an association of tenant farmers")]

The etymology of coterie is interesting. The tenant farmers from whom we get coterie were organizations of peasants working land owned by a feudal lord known as a cote. (I don't think this version of cote is related to the modern French word which means "quote.") The feudal cote spawned the French word cotage, which is where we get cottage. The cotage of a cote was not just his house, but included the entire property attached to a cote.

In writing, coterie is often needlessly modified by words to let us know the clique in question is "a small coterie" or "an exclusive coterie." A coterie by definition cannot be a big group. I have, however, seen instances where writers have modified coterie with large, extensive and so on. By doing so, they are saying the group is likely not a coterie at all.

Tim Rutten in the L.A. Times, reviewing 'Nomad's Hotel' by Cees Nooteboom, refers to a group of writers as a "small coterie." That's redundant, as a coterie is by definition small:
As a young man in Buenos Aires, (the Argentine-born author Alberto) Manguel was fortunate enough to be invited into the small coterie of local literati who read daily to the blind Jorge Luis Borges.

Jacob Hamblin, in his book Science in the Early Twentieth Century, says psychoanalist Carl Jung had "an extensive coterie." A coterie can not be extensive -- it is exclusive:
Jung developed an international reputation, as well as an extensive coterie of followers that helped to expand the understanding of collective symbols throughout the world.

David Shaywitz and Thomas Stossel in the Wall Street Journal claim a group of critics have disproportionate influence over corporate-sponsored drug research. The problem, though, is that it's likely that the people Stossel and Shaywitz refer to are not close associates of each other, and thus not really a coterie, even if they are small in number:
Leading research organizations such as the Michael J. Fox Foundation for Parkinson's disease proactively build bridges with industry leaders, solicit advice from industry scientists, and fund projects in industry labs. But this enlightened view of industry is not widespread. This is largely because of the disproportionate influence of a coterie of prominent critics we have previously dubbed "pharmascolds," who routinely vilify the medical products industry and portray academics working with it as traitors and sellouts.

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