August 17, 2004

Debasment is not another way to say da cellar in Brooklyn

[Warning: The following was composed primarily between the hours of 2 and 2:30 this morning and I have decided to publish it before I have any coffee.]

No, debasement is tradtionally something you do to currency. In Roman times, if I recall my Roman Law class from law school correctly, to debase currency meant melting a pure metal coin down, adding lead to the melted bit and reminting it in order to make more coins. Lead was a base metal. It had the effect of devaluing the entire currency and causing people to lose confidence in the monetary system. Under Roman Law, I seem to recall it was punishable by death.

Debasement is also something that the clever alchemists at Reuters and the A.P. and other "news agencies" (dig the scare quotes) are doing to the English language. How so? Let's take some examples, one at a time.

Instead of saying terrorist, we hear: rebel; militant; militia; or, my personal favorite, activist.

Terrorist means or meant (all definitions adapted from a radical who employs terror as a political weapon; usually organizes with other terrorists in small cells; often uses religion as a cover for terrorist activities.

Rebel means or meant: To refuse allegiance to and oppose by force an established government or ruling authority. To resist or defy an authority or a generally accepted convention.

Militant means or meant: A fighting, warring, or aggressive person or party.
[Middle English, from Old French, from Latin mlitns, mlitant- present participle of mlitre, to serve as a soldier. See militate.]

Militia means or meant:An army composed of ordinary citizens rather than professional soldiers. A military force that is not part of a regular army and is subject to call for service in an emergency. The whole body of physically fit civilians eligible by law for military service.

Activist means or meant: advocating or engaged in activism, n : a militant reformer.

These words, all perfectly good words with their own distinct meanings, are being debased, being melted down in a large Reuters kettle and, weighted down with lead, being reminted and contorted into the shape of the word terrorist. Soon, if not already, they will be read to be mere synonyms of the word, terrorist. And then our language will be rendered poorer and the readers will, if they have not already, begin to lose confidence in the whole system of reporting "news" (sorry about the scare quotes again, I can't help it). Why? Well, if activist is a word you might normally associate with someone trying to unionize apple pickers and then you start seeing it turn up in connection with a fellow who's activities include, say, firing an AK-47 at a school bus full of children, your view of that activity is warped by your perception of what an activist really does, or did before Reuters got ahold of the word. See it enough times and your brain, which is more sensible, will start to substitute the word terrorist for activist or, maybe, you will start to lose the meaning of the word activist which you had fixed in your brain. Everything just sort of melts down. And eventually, you distrust the messenger just as much as the message and you are not sure what anything means any more in any context.

I won't advocate a death sentence for these terribly earnest editors who, in their haste to avoid making some kind of value judgment about the activities of our hypothetical "activist", as the Romans might have, but I am open to suggestions for an appropriate punishment for those who continue to debase and contort this beautiful language and deprive it of all absolute meaning until everything is relative and not one word means anything until they tell you what they want it to mean.

One final thought, maybe we should just call the terrorists, freedom fighters, since by and large, they are fighting freedom all over the globe.

Posted by Random Penseur at August 17, 2004 07:21 AM

these are not the things i think about at 2 am

i find it very interesting however,
that you do.

Posted by: kbear at August 17, 2004 08:42 AM

I wholeheartedly agree with you, RP. I share your linguistic as well as journalistic/political concerns. On the linguistic front, I have had similar thoughts regarding, for instance, substituting host for hostess (the whole gender-neutral thing is depriving us of an entire category of words!) and impact (as a verb) for affect. Really, I could rant ad nauseum on this topic! Thanks for sharing.

Posted by: GrammarQueen at August 17, 2004 08:49 AM

You're doted with an uncanny power of analysis at two o'clock in the morning. I have a hard time thinking of anything other than the mortgage and car payments, while I toss and turn.

Perhaps, in lieu of the death penalty (and as if it were actually up to us!), we could strip the culprits of their press credentials and give them a sound hand-slapping on network TV. That should keep them in line!


Posted by: Mick at August 17, 2004 09:08 AM

Yup. I find myself writing blogs in my head at 2 am, if I am up.

I'm not sure if that makes us dedicated, or very sad :)

Posted by: Helen at August 17, 2004 10:00 AM

It's very sad. You should wait until 4:00 AM like me. ;-)

Posted by: Jim at August 17, 2004 01:48 PM

Well, Helen, Jim, that may explain why we get along so well.

GrammarQueen, feel free to spill it out. I'd be curious to read your thoughts on that topic.

Kbear and Mick, I just couldn't help myself. I lay there in bed and this post just sort of wrote itself while I couldn't sleep. I think I need a new pillow.

Posted by: RP at August 17, 2004 05:21 PM

What was once called a lie is now called spin.

Posted by: stolypin at August 17, 2004 11:20 PM

Ivan, you should also add the use of the words elections and democracy as applied to places like North Korea.

Posted by: RP at August 18, 2004 08:53 AM
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