Friday, March 10, 2006


by Joseph Hilber March 6, 2006


Our political discourse is bedeviled by misuse of words critical to explaining one’s position on issues. Recently a friend decided to run for Director of an organization to which we both belong. I asked him about his platform and motivation for running. He told me that he was the “outsider” candidate. I said that I assumed that his opponent was an “insider”. I understood the answer to be yes. Now the common meaning of the words insider and outsider are quite simple and plain. (Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary, 1980)

outsider: (a) A person who does not belong to a particular group.
(b) A contender who is not expected to win.

It seemed at first take that he must not have meant definition (a) since both he and I and most of the others present belong to this same organization. This meaning was also not indicated because his opponent is clearly a member also. This leaves (b) which, knowing my friend, I suspected wasn’t what he meant either since he identified himself with the directors elected last year and he classified them as outsiders. If I recall the discussion last year those outsiders were expected to win.

Back to the drawing board. Next let’s look at the meaning of “insider”, a word with three meanings. (Webster 1980)

insider: (a) A person recognized or accepted as a member of a group.
(b) A person with power or access to confidential information.
(c) A officer, director or significant owner who has knowledge of or influence upon the decisions of a company.

Definition (a) presents the same problem as (a) above, my friend is clearly part of the same group as myself and has been legally and officially accepted as qualified to be a candidate. Meaning (b) seems helpful since I, my friend and many others in the room could easily confirm that we were not in power and did not have access to confidential information except our own account. Finding out what qualified one as an insider candidate in this discussion took a few more questions. Being a customer and a member seemed to be ruled our. Perhaps being an employee? No. The current directors? Yes, no, sort-of . How about managers or executives? Definitely yes. But your “insider” opponent is not an employee, not a manager, not a current director, not in power and currently does not have access to confidential information. Yes, but the executives back him. Now I get it, I think. This year the “insider candidate” is an outsider backed by the insiders!

OK, then, an “outsider candidate” must be a candidate not backed by the insiders. Unfortunately knowing this does not of itself reveal where my friend stands or even what he thinks are the issues, in other words his platform. Thankfully he was willing to begin a discussion of his motivation and stand on issues much to the benefit of myself and other voters in the group.


In order to shorten this paper about corruptions of word meaning and usage I’ve decided to invent a whole new word to represent the whole set of word corruptions that are bedeviling our communications. This tactic at least has the virtue of not corrupting any existing word. The new word is “wordfuzz” which means: (Joe 2006)

wordfuzz: The class of word corruptions that deliberately or inadvertently change meaning usage or connotation of a word so radically that civil communications are significantly impaired.

Given the information about my friend’s candidacy I received in the discussion recounted above I now knew how to describe his candidacy in the upcoming election. There is an adjective in English that has exactly the meaning needed. That word is “insurgent” which is defined as (Webster, 1980):

insurgent: Rising in opposition to civil authority or established leadership.

As soon as I understood that my friend had sought the nomination due to his opposition to the established leadership of the organization I began using the much clearer word. As soon as I did, however, I got an instantaneous demonstration of wordfuzz in action.

Me: “Now that I understand that you are the insurgent candidate I have some questions about your platform.”

Before the candidate could reply another participant in the discussion interrupted:

“You’re calling him a terrorist!”

Whoa !! Where did this come from? A real live wordfuzz moment! Three years ago this misunderstanding would not have occurred in a group with as wide a vocabulary as this one. How did this come about? Should we ordinary folks be concerned about wordfuzz or simply resign ourselves to the degradation of our civic communications?

First lets do a little analysis on this one. The word “terrorist” is a noun that means (Webster 1980):

terrorist: A person who makes systematic use of terror as a means of coercion.

We need to go further and find the word that explains “use of terror” in this definition. That word is the verb “terrorize” which means (Webster 1980):

terrorize: (1) to fill with terror or anxiety, to scare.
(2) to coerce by threat or violence.

We can’t deny that these words have daily usefulness to us in our domestic and corporate lives. We understand (unless this current wordfuzz battle has already been lost) that to say that, “Johnny loves to terrorize the little kids on the playground” means he loves to scare them. He might do this by telling a scary story, he might do this by wearing a gruesome mask or any other tactic that inspires terror or anxiety. We have used these words easily in domestic and public life.

I think the trail to the wordfuzz we’re fighting here leads through the second meaning of terrorize. While this second meaning is also common in our experience, for example, of bullies (children or adults) who say things like, “I don’t want you sitting at my table. If you don’t leave I’ll spill your milk on your dress.” there is a more ominous meaning. Since I suspect that the wordfuzz we are currently battling has it origins in the events of September 11, 2001 let’s look down that dark road. The ominous trail leads us to one of several meaning of the base word “terror” which means (Webster 1980):

terror: (4) violence committed by groups in order to intimidate a population or government into granting their demands.

How in the world did we get to the misunderstanding demonstrated in the fragment of discussion reported above? Even if the equating of insurgent to terrorist was intended as a humorous remark its humor probably would not have been apparent prior to recent times and this fact is indicative of the wordfuzz present in this conversation.

Are some insurgents terrorist? Yes Are all insurgents terrorists? No

Are some terrorists insurgents? Yes Are all terrorists insurgents? No

What about the perpetrators of Nine Eleven? Terrorists or insurgents?

We and the our media quickly classified them as terrorists. I don’t recall a single media report or politician calling them insurgents. Thus this wordfuzz did not begin here but certainly the meaning of terrorism became real to Americans. A reality that many men, women and children around the world had experience directly as victims for years.

I think this wordfuzz grew out of the subsequent sloppy use of the word terrorist by politicians all over the world. How often have we heard a third world leader characterize his opposition as terrorists. In conflicts between nations how often we hear one belligerent characterize the other nation’s soldiers or leaders as terrorists. It happens here in the US also. We’ve heard Senator Clinton and Senator Frist characterized as terrorists! Anti war demonstrators and pro war demonstrators have been called terrorists. Lawyer, corporate executives, union members, and religious leaders have been characterized this way also. A secondary casualties of this wordfuzz attack is that other words are sucked into the battle.

What can an individual citizen do to fight wordfuzz? First try to use words correctly and insist that those around you do the same. It really helps achieve more successful communication. When you encounter an obvious wordfuzz caused failure take the time to explain your meaning and use diplomatic questioning to determine your correspondent’s meaning or usage.

As citizens we have a big stake in political life. We should demand that our politicians use words correctly and challenge them if they don’t. Even candidates whose positions we agree with can give in to the wordfuzz temptation. After all, calling your opponent a terrorist will likely get you some amount of media attention.

This raises the issue of the press holding politicians accountable for their use of words. Think about it, when was the last time you saw, heard or read our media doing this? This year‘s movie, “Good Night and Good Luck”, recounts a real historical occasion when the media did such a thing in history. Actually I have seen, read or heard reporters or commentators make such challenges in recent times and find myself cheering when it happens.

I’m enough of a realist to know that words do change meaning over time. Still, I would encourage us to resist it. What is really disconcerting is to have the new meaning(s) quickly force all other meanings of a word into archaic (unusable) status and to not have another word to use in communicating those other meanings. I suspect that many current political issues have a very high dose of wordfuzz degrading the public discussion concerning them. Perhaps avoiding wordfuzz will help us move closer to agreement or at least make some progress on these issues.


1. I used Webster’s New Collegiate Dictionary from 1980 since I had it on my desk and it would have been a common reference during student and or adult years of most of those involved in the discussion sampled in the first part of the paper.

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