Saturday, September 10, 2011

The language war on terror(ism)

Over at Literal-Minded, Neal Whitman explains that he was once among those who thought the phrase “war on terror” was a product of the 9/11 attacks, and who also disapproved of the phrase. Having now researched it, he shows clearly enough that “war on terror” was already current (if not nearly so widespread) decades earlier -- so we can't blame George Bush for it.

The first I heard of any discomfort with the usage was a query from a Globe reader back in 2003. He'd been hearing newscasters use "war on terror" interchangeably with "war on terrorism," and he wondered if that was OK. I answered, briefly, in my column:
They're an odd pair, terror and terrorism -- does any other ism mean the same thing as its root word? Stalin and Stalinism can't change places in a sentence, nor can sex and sexism, cube and Cubism. Why, then, can terror also mean terrorism?

Well, it's those pesky French again. In English, terror was just a word for dreadful fear till the French Revolution brought the bloody Reign of Terror in 1793. By 1801 "reign of terror" was recorded in English, and terror was no longer just personal fear but political brutality.

That capital-T Terror gave birth to terrorisme, a coinage ratified by the French Academy in 1798 and adopted into English the same year. But terror, thanks to the guillotine, was already in use as an abstract noun that meant intimidation by violence, threatened or actual.
I didn’t bother to quote the OED then, but now that I have room for it, here’s the entry (under terror):
4. reign of terror, a state of things in which the general community live in dread of death or outrage; esp. (with capital initials) French Hist. the period of the First Revolution from about March 1793 to July 1794, called also the Terror, the Red Terror, when the ruling faction remorselessly shed the blood of persons of both sexes and of all ages and conditions whom they regarded as obnoxious. Hence, without article or pl., the use of organized intimidation, terrorism.
It wasn't till a year later, in spring 2004, that Jon Stewart put the anti-terror argument into wider circulation, saying (not ad lib, but in a graduation speech), "We declared war on terror -- it's not even a noun, so, good luck.”  This prompted Geoff Pullum to conjecture that Stewart was relying on his grade-school notion of a noun as "a person, place, or thing," which was sadly deficient:
The way to tell whether a word is a noun in English is to ask questions like: Does it have a plural form (the terrors of childhood)? Does it have a genitive form (terror's effects)? Does it occur with the articles the and a (the terror)? Can you use it as the main or only word in the subject of a clause (Terror rooted me to the spot), or the object of a preposition (war on terror)? And so on. These are grammatical questions. Syntactic and morphological questions. Not semantic ones.
I can see how "war on terror" might have the sound of headline-writer's shorthand, and its economy probably has helped it proliferate; maybe that's why editor Bill Walsh, of Blogslot, objected to the phrase, claiming only "war on terrorism" was accurate. But terror has denoted a strategy (as well as an emotion) for two centuries, and it would probably take a heap of editorial scorn to stop it now.


Bryan White said...

I like Jon Steward, but that was kind of a dumb thing for him to say. "Terror" is absolutely a noun, just as "love" or "joy" or "fear" are nouns. Terror is a thing, even if it isn't a physical, tangible, thing. I suppose it can pull some extra shifts as an adjective, such as in "terror alert" or "terror plot", when it's really pressed for money, but its primary job will always be as a noun.

Marc Leavitt said...

All of the foregoing is quite correct; far be it from me to argue with Geoff Pullum. But the root of the problem IS semantic. War on Terror just doesn't FEEL right. It probably has to do with the simple fact that I've never seen a terror; it's noncorporeal. Terror is an abstract noun, denoting a feeling, which is subsumed by terrorism, which, although equally noncorporeal, is a concept we can anthropomorphize.