Regular readers have referred to my ready use of the alliterative… with both raves and ridicule. So you will not be surprised that when rating risks, I often write of, “natural, accidental, and intentional” origins.
Secretary Napolitano’s stubborn avoidance of “terrorism” in her prepared testimony to the House Homeland Security Committee did not, as a result, especially trouble me. But her choice of “man-caused disaster” did strike me as an awkward replacement.
I was not alone. The following rumination by William Safire will appear in tomorrow’s Sunday Times Magazine. It is part of a longer column really worth a fun-filled read.
WAR ON MAN-CAUSATION by William Safire
When Janet Napolitano, the new secretary of homeland security, testified before Congress, she caused a stir by ostentatiously avoiding the use of a certain familiar word central to the mission of her department: terrorism. A reporter for the German magazine Der Spiegel asked, “Does Islamist terrorism suddenly no longer pose a threat to your country?” Napolitano replied, “I presume there is always a threat from terrorism,” and also noted that she had referred to “man-caused disasters.” She added, “This is perhaps only a nuance, but it demonstrates that we want to move away from the politics of fear.”
The Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan commented: “Ah. Well, this is only a nuance, but her use of language is a man-caused disaster.” Noonan makes an excellent point of light: a word is not the thing itself. (That was the message of the general semanticist Alfred Korzybski, famous for “a map is not the territory.”) Renaming terrorism “man-caused disaster” does not begin to deal with the real thing that is terrorism.
Napolitano, however, is to be hailed for breaking the taboo that has afflicted the word man. Political correctness, driven by the abhorrence of sexism in language, has banished such phrases as the forgotten man, man on horseback, century of the common man, even man in the arena. The adjective manly is forbidden and mankind is out, replaced by humanity. Chairman finds its substitute in chairperson or plain chair (although The Times requires a writer to choose between chairman and chairwoman). The only acceptable use of man is when it is introduced by hu.
Not anymore! Thanks to the vocabulary policy adopted at the cabinet level by the Obama administration, long-awaited change has come to lexical misanthropy. With the start of what phrasemakers could call “War on the Word ‘Terrorism,’ ” Napolitano’s coinage of the compound euphemism man-caused shows we finally have a top-level politico who can do nuance.