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The term "pontificate," like many other words, means different things depending on the context in which it is used. Pontificate can be used as a noun to refer to various aspects of pontifical duties or the office of a pontiff such as a pope or a bishop. When used as a verb, however, it commonly refers to the speech or oratory of a religious figure, usually regarding dogmatic or religious subjects. It can also have a negative connotation, however, when used to describe the speech of a non-religious figure, in which it typically labels a person as pompous.
Usage as a Noun
When someone refers to "the pontificate," he or she is usually indicating the office of a religious figure such as the Catholic pope. Generally, it describes the administration of such an office. In this case, it is usually pronounced slightly differently than when it is a verb, with the emphasis placed on the "-tif-" in the middle and the "-cate" at the end pronounced like "kit."
Usage as a Verb with Positive Meaning
To pontificate also means to speak in dogmatic or inflexible terms. It is an intransitive verb, or one that does not take an object, and is pronounced with emphasis on the "pon-" at the beginning and the "-cate" at the end pronounced like "kate." Many people regard this method of speaking as a religious characteristic, since many religions are inherently dogmatic. Priests, rabbis, imams, and other members of the clergy are prone to pontificate, and in this sense it is not a negative characteristic.
Usage as a Negative Verb
Some people commonly use this term to describe a patronizing form of speech. Someone speaking in a way that is pompous, haughty, or condescending may be seen as pontificating. People often use this approach to speechmaking or lecturing to demean those that have a different opinion, to make them feel inferior for not agreeing with the “enlightened” perspective of the person speaking.
It is not unusual to hear exaggerated rhetoric from politicians known to pontificate during campaign speeches. For example, liberalism and conservatism are conflicting ideologies, and both factions are aggressive in their attempts to sway public opinion. The voting base of either philosophy often applauds the pontification of their leaders, while the other side tends to interpret the remarks as condescending and closed-minded.
Effects of Such Speech
This brazen approach to public speaking may not appear to be very effective, but it often rallies the supportive base and also sways some voters who were previously undecided. Speaking passionately can often give the impression of speaking from the heart, whether or not this is true. The campaigner who chooses to pontificate may swing some votes, but is unlikely to sway anyone who holds a completely opposite political view. In fact, a pompous recitation of opposing political ideals frequently turns off many listeners.