Tuesday, 3 July 2007

A New Language

“Gordon Brown’s assertion that the latest terrorists are ‘evil’ recalls George Bush’s notorious axis. . . . If he truly desires change, fresh international dialogue and enhanced national security, it is imperative that he find a new language to express his ideas.” [1]
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Would it be better if we described only as bad, misguided, or a wee bit naughty persons who wished to commit mass-murder and spread terror? I myself cannot see how the word “evil” [2] — in the sense of moral wickedness — is misapplied to such persons. Happen I am not so warm and sensitive as our author, nor so prone to the belief that the world will be set aright through the mad insistence that we find a new language by which we should fail to describe it.
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[1] Dr Jan Tate, Letter to The Guardian, 3rd July 2007. In a similar vein, cf.: “It is deeply unhelpful for news networks to breathlessly report that the Glasgow attackers were ‘Asian-looking men’.” Josh Freedman Berthoud, “Dangerous little words”, Comment is Free (The Guardian’s weblog), 1st July 2007. (From the context, I have trouble understanding the meaning of the phrase “deeply unhelpful”. Does it mean what it normally means? Is it even English, or some homoplasy?)
[2] The Online Etymological Dictionary has the following entry for evil: O.E. yfel (Kentish evel) “bad, vicious,” from P.Gmc. *ubilaz (cf. O.Saxon ubil, Goth. ubils), from PIE *upelo-, giving the word an original sense of “uppity, overreaching bounds” which slowly worsened. “In OE., as in all the other early Teut. langs., exc. Scandinavian, this word is the most comprehensive adjectival expression of disapproval, dislike or disparagement” [OED]. Evil was the word the Anglo-Saxons used where we would use bad, cruel, unskillful, defective (adj.), or harm, crime, misfortune, disease. The meaning “extreme moral wickedness” was in O.E., but did not become the main sense until 18c. Evil eye (L. oculus malus) was O.E. eage yfel.

3 comments:

Ronald Adair said...

I am sure that Islamic terrorists knew that there would be a very large segment of the population that would be sympathetic and provide support for their efforts. As a result, they are encouraged to continue their present campaign and use successful terroristic methods.

Deogolwulf said...

Indeed.

Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

I'd settle for "misguided" if only the Islamists' aim were a bit worse.

How much better out memories of September 11, 2001 would be if Al-Qaeda had simply missed its targets, motivating passengers to overwhelm the 'would-be' terrorists and safely land the planes!

But I don't think that Dr. Jan Tate meant that sort of "misguided," nor would it change reality anyway even if he had so meant.

Consequently, I believe that I'll just stick to the proper word, namely, "evil."

Jeffery Hodges

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