Friday, August 27, 2004

What's in a Word?

Or what linguists don't understand about politics.

A.Word.A.Day is arguing for an alternative to the term "military junta." It prefers the word "stratocracy." The argument goes like this:

With so many countries under military rule, why isn't this word better known? Go ahead, put it to use -- why use many words when a single word is available to describe something?

This is, of course, utter nonsense.

Ann pointed out why to me. "Military junta sounds so delightfully evil, while stratocracy sounds neutral," she remarked.

I can safely say that I will never refer to Burma's ruling regime as a "stratocracy." It's a cold term. It sounds as if it refers to an administration of expert technocrats. Is this a term that should be used to describe the economically-illiterate gang of generals who believe that arresting black market money changers will increase the value of Burma's currency against the dollar?

"Stratocracy" also fails to convey what generals do well: armed repression. Stratocracies don't sound as if they would even know how to torture and pillage.

Just for variety, I will sometimes substitute the word "regime" for "junta." If I want to be more exact, the right term is probably "military dictatorship."

"Junta" is the snappy term used best in speeches and on the radio. I often preface it with the adjective "brutal." It's a helpful intensifier.

"Stratocracy" will never catch on because it fails as an appropriate epithet for the kind of generals that rule Burma today or ruled Nigeria for most of the 1990s.

Why use one colorless term to criticize a regime, when you can use three loaded words to slam them properly for being a brutal military junta?


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