At the turn of the century, the word “tsunami” was not widely known outside some of the coastal regions of eastern and southern Asia. The word comes from Japanese and has the innocuous meaning, “harbour wave”.
After 26 December 2004, tsunami became one of the most frequently used words in the media worldwide as people were struck with awe and incredulity at the fury of nature that had taken away 300,000 lives.
The dilution of meaning in the word began within weeks of the disaster. In the same year, a cyber security expert warned the digital tsunami that was impending could be more destructive than the Asian tsunami. An African newspaper called the world food crisis a silent tsunami.
Referring to the US election extravaganza on 5 February 2008, when the largest number of primary elections in US history would be simultaneously held, people used the term, “Tsunami Tuesday”. Many considered it a frivolous use of a term that evoked painful memories of a human tragedy of huge proportions. Such flippancy was in bad taste. Words such as tsunami get emotionally charged, and when they are used in inappropriate contexts with scant regard for the trauma of the victims, the listeners feel hurt.
“Crusade” turned out to be another prickly word in George Bush’s US.
In 1984, the Reagan administration had used the term “war against terrorism” in reaction to the Beirut barracks bombing in 1983. On 16 September 2001, in the aftermath of 9/11, Bush made an unscripted comment, “This crusade, this war on terrorism, is going to take a while.” Crusade is a word that has negative connotations to people of the Muslim faith. It refers to the military expeditions spread over two centuries against the Muslim world by Christian knights who wanted to seize control of the holy land. European leaders, including those who stood by the US, were alarmed at the president’s language. Politicians, religious leaders and diplomats voiced their concern at its possible consequences. It would be ominous if this confusion between politics and religion led to a “clash of civilizations”. Bush later apologized for his remark. The Obama administration later realized the danger in the use of bellicose terminology, and the war on terror was officially renamed “Overseas Contingency Operation”.
From the other camp comes the high-voltage word, “jihad”. It means holy war, a war ordained by God. But over time, metaphorical uses of the word became common, and you could speak of a jihad against corruption, a jihad against AIDS. With the rise of terrorism and insurgency, the word became a catchword for terror groups to justify their fight and to inspire their followers.
Even words that we use in daily life may have negative associations that we may not be conscious of. There was a hue and cry when an Indian politician said LTTE leader Prabhakaran was an international pariah. He faced a lawsuit for violation of civil rights.
Agatha Christie’s novel, Ten Little Niggers, had to be renamed Ten Little Indians before publication in the US. Thomas Hardy’s novel, The Return of the Native, was banned in South Africa because of the negative connotations of the word “native”. Native is a neutral term referring to one’s place of birth. But you are not likely to hear anyone say, “I went to London last month, and the natives were very friendly.”
Words such as jihad and crusade can be of the nature of incantations, and can play a sort of white magic on us. John Kenneth Galbraith coined a word for this predicament. This is the age of “wordfact”, he said. “To say that something exists is a substitute for its existence.” The word has now become a substitute for reality. Centuries ago, Francis Bacon cautioned, “Although we think we govern our words, (they) shoot back upon the understanding of the wisest, and pervert the judgment.”
VR Narayanaswami is a former professor of English, and has written several books and articles on the usage of the language. He looks at the peculiarities of business and popular English usage in his fortnightly column.
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