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Figurehead

In its conventional sense, figurehead refers to a person with nominal leadership of an organization or government but no actual authority. For example, many modern monarchs are figureheads because their roles are merely ceremonial and most of their power was long ago ceded to democratic government.

But figurehead is often used for leaders and prominent figures who have more than nominal leadership. For example, these writers use figurehead to describe actual leaders rather than merely nominal leaders:

When citizens elect mayors to four-year terms they have a figurehead accountable to voters whose job it is to take a leading role in the city. [Leavenworth Times]

And better yet, she was appointed to her position by her father, a figurehead of Alaska’s old-guard GOP. [Alaska Dispatch]

I think it’s all of these and more, but I am grateful that Obama has risen as the figurehead leading the charge. [comment on The Hill]

If we give precedence to figurehead‘s long-held, dictionary-recognized definitions, then the word would bear replacement with an actual synonym of leader in each of the above sentences.


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These writers use figurehead in its conventional sense:

Asma is merely a well-coiffed figurehead; she can’t take on the strong vested interests in the Assad regime. [New Statesman]

You couldn’t accuse Jonathan Adnams, chairman of the Suffolk brewery that bears his name, of merely being a figurehead for the family firm. [This is Money]

William is the grandson of Queen Elizabeth II, a ceremonial figurehead whose job involves checking off whatever boxes the assorted governments under her nominal command tell her to. [Calgary Herald]

Incidentally, in that last example, ceremonial figurehead is redundant because a figurehead is usually inherently ceremonial.

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Comments

  1. This confusion exists because people started calling certain leaders “figureheads” to make a point. They used the word correctly, but that point flew over the heads of others, who inferred from context that figurehead must mean leader and then propagated this misunderstanding in their own writing. I feel this sort of thing must happen a lot.

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