Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Sticks and Stones

The English language is blessed with an abundance of words, some of which are used by all speakers of the language and some of which are highly esoteric and used rarely, if at all, by today's speakers of English. Nonetheless, the words exist.

Part of learning any language is the idea of connotation and denotation. To be succinct, denotation is the dictionary definition of a word; connotation is how that word is used in actual parlance: its negativity or positivity when used, the "emotional" baggage the word carries. The childhood chant may state "Sticks and stones may break my bones but words will never hurt me," but the reality is that words can hurt, and hurt badly.

Some words have many synonyms--words that are similar to but not exactly the same as the word we have in mind. Some of the synonyms are more general in meaning, some more specific. The difference between the synonyms is often their connotation. Call someone slim or slender and you've paid them a compliment; slim and slender have a positive connotation when it comes to body size. Call them thin or skinny and you are not being as positive. Call them scrawny, gaunt or emaciated and you are painting a highly negative picture.

Now let's look at the word "kill." It's simplest dictionary definition is to deprive of existence. Like the word "nice," kill has become a general place holder word, applied in so many diverse instances that it has become almost too generalized. But what are some of the synonyms for kill? annihilate, asphyxiate, assassinate, blot out*, bump off*, butcher, crucify, dispatch, do away with*,decapitate, defeat, destroy, dispatch, do in*, drub*, drown, dump, electrocute, eradicate, erase*, execute, exterminate, extirpate, finish, garrote, get*, guillotine, hang, hit*, immolate, liquidate, lynch, massacre, murder, neutralize, obliterate, off*, poison, polish off*, put away*, put to death, rub out*, sacrifice, slaughter, slay, smother, snuff, strangle, suffocate, waste*, wipe out*, X-out, zap.* Which of these synonyms we choose to use in any given situation will depend more on the connotation we wish our listeners/readers to get than on the denotation. It will depend on customary usage for certain words.

What do we do if we end the existence of a mosquito? Usually we kill it or perhaps zap it. What do antibiotics do? If they are working correctly then they kill, destroy, obliterate or wipe out bacteria. In these cases we stick to words with a fairly general meaning of ending life. But a strange thing happens when it comes to describing the ending of life of a human being. Suddenly some people begin waffling when it comes to choosing the word to use to describe the act of ending a human life.

Some of the difficulty is whether or not the ending of that human life was intentional or unintentional, and here the waters get murky. If two people are standing on the roof of a tall building and one accidentally bumps the other such that that person falls off the building and dies when hitting the ground, we refer to a killing rather than a murder. In some cases it will take a court to decide if a killing was accidental, in which case it remains a killing, or intentional, in which case it becomes a murder. If a body is found lying dead in the street it will take forensic sleuthing to discover whether or not a killing took place or a murder took place.

What do you call it when two soldiers from opposing sides in a declared war shoot at each other and one dies? Language convention says that the soldier was killed, not murdered. But what happens when civilians are killed by soldiers during the course of a war? That depends. Were the civilians hiding in the midst of a group of soldiers? Were the soldiers hiding in the midst of a group of civilians? Was it the intention of the soldiers to kill civilians as well as soldiers of the opposing forces? Were the deaths purposeful or accidental? Could the soldier have known that civilians were in the line of fire? And then there is the added difficulty of defining "war" and "soldier." Is a terrorist a soldier or is a terrorist something else?

Now what happens when a killing is reported in the media? "Journalistic fairness" (an oxymoron in way too many instances) requires that a reporter err on the side of caution. Where it is not yet known whether a taking of life was intentional or accidental, then such taking of a life needs to be reported as a killing. Where a court will be required to determine whether killing or murder has taken place, then reporting should speak about an alleged killer or alleged murderer. A court will need to decide the status of a homicide. For a court's purposes "the general term for the killing of a person by another is homicide; murder is either the intentional killing or malicious killing of another; manslaughter is the unintentional, accidental killing of another through carelessness."

Where the press falls down in their vaunted "fairness" is when the facts of a case are clearly obvious and no normally constructed court would decide other than what everyone else in the world can see. Nor are the media particularly even handed in how they apply the synonyms of "kill" or the word "kill" itself. I pulled up thousands of references online from the national media that use the term "gangland-style execution." In these cases, prior to any involvement on the part of the courts, the media have no problem in discussing that a killing was probably a murder for hire.

The assassination of President Kennedy was NOT referred to as a killing; it was referred to as an assassination or murder. Millions of people were watching the motorcade on television when the President was shot. It was obvious and logical that a sniper on a rooftop shooting down at the motorcade was not accidental; it was intentional.

I won't go through the thousands of incidents that happen throughout the world that the media picks and chooses about when deciding to call something a killing or a murder. A commenter on a different posting said that the Washington Post's style book instructs reporters to use the word killing instead of the word murder until a court of law decides that a crime has been committed. They separate the act from the crime. Must be nice for the Post's reporters to sleep so soundly because their style book allows them to.

One small recreational plane piloted by a novice who errs in reading his navigational instruments and who flies into the side of a building on the East River might result in the killing of residents in the building. But when three airliners are hijacked, two of which are intentionally flown into the World Trade Center buildings? Does it really take a court to decide that that was murder, not killing?

And then there is Mumbai. So the perpetrators accidentally held a city hostage for three days? They accidentally found themselves with weapons and explosives and accidentally set off the explosives and shot the rifles? And having shot once they accidentally shot again and again? They accidentally held hostages? They accidentally bound and tortured some of those hostages? They accidentally shot at the Indian police and military forces which were trying to free the hostages and catch the perpetrators? And it's just accidental that the targets which were captured all had a few things in common?

The world watched the events of Mumbai play out, but "fairness" on the part of the press requires that they use the word "kill" until a court actually declares that a crime was committed? Or maybe it's just plain laziness on their part, using the overworked "kill" instead of looking for the more specific word to describe an incident. I object to the use of a word that can be used to talk about the getting rid of crab grass also being applied to the "getting rid of" of human beings. No, I am not going to change anything by complaining here that much of the reporting by the media when it comes to killing vs. murder is not just slanted but has slid all the way down from truth to fairy tale. What I am doing is following the precept of one William Shakespeare: "This above all, to thine own self be true." For myself, I know the difference between a killing and a murder, and sorry all you media moguls, I'm not buying the manure you are peddling.

NOTE: This is an addendum to my original posting. Hat tip to Lion of Zion who provided the link. The link provides a little insight into how the New York Times decides when to use the word terrorist and when not. Time

1 comment:

Lion of Zion said...

did you see the NYT on sunday? there is a piece about how it decides what it terrorism. for example, killing jewish children in the territories does not warrant the word "terrorism"