April 06, 2004

What a difference a word makes

According to this article in today's NYT, a wildlife preserve in South Carolina deleted one word and substituted another in its name, and thereby more than doubled the monthly count of visitors, while a local kayak and canoe rental place tripled its rentals.

The old name: the Congaree Swamp National Monument. The new name: Congaree National Park. The story emphasizes the effects of removing "swamp", though it's clear that the change from Monument to Park was also relevant. The park's naturalist says that "I used to be the loneliest ranger in town. Now the phones are ringing off the hook. ... If I can use a terrible pun, we're getting swamped." The article's headline is: "Park Is Still a Swamp, but Please Don't Tell the Tourists".

OK, point taken. Lose the word swamp in naming vacation destinations. And now for a different word. With respect to the recent Falluja massacre, Max Sawicky argues that

To me the term mercenary connotes someone willing to covertly commit war crimes and provide support for illegitimate military missions. ... A contractor in this theater is not a mercenary in my view.

Max gets a lot grief in the comments: "A mercenary is a soldier hired into foreign service - refer to dictionary " was one of the milder responses.

Well, let's do that. The OED's first two definitions for mercenary are

1. A person who works merely for money or other material reward; a hireling. In later use (prob. influenced also by sense 2): a person whose actions are motivated primarily by personal gain, often at the expense of ethics.

2. a. A person who receives payment for his or her services. Chiefly and now only: spec. a soldier paid to serve in a foreign army or other military organization.

I'm not sure where the line is, in this case, between denotation (which the American Heritage dictionary defines as "the specific or direct meaning of a word") and connotation ("the set of associations implied by a word in addition to its literal meaning"). The thing is, mercenary has some nasty literal meanings -- "works merely for money", "hireling", "motivated primarily by personal gain", "at the expense of ethics" -- and you can't completely put those aside when you pick up on the specific sense of "soldier paid to serve in a foreign army". Consider some of the OED's non-military citations, from the 16th to the 20th century:

1532 T. MORE Confut. Tyndale in Wks. 362/2 They holde that it is not lawfull to loue..God..for obteining of reward, calling this maner of loue..seruile bonde and mercennary. ...
1690 W. TEMPLE Misc. II. i. 68 Learning has been so little advanced since it grew to be mercenary. ...
1781 W. COWPER Hope 333 His soul abhors a mercenary thought, And him as deeply who abhors it not.
1837 H. MARTINEAU Society in Amer. III. 128 The disgusting spectacle of mercenary marriages. ...
1913 T. HARDY Changed Man 275 No man when he first becomes interested in a woman has any definite scheme of engagement to marry her in his mind, unless he is meaning a vulgar mercenary marriage. ...
1990 G. ROBERTSON Media Law 17 The law of England is indeed,..a law of liberty; but the freedoms it recognises do not include a licence for the mercenary betrayal of business confidences.

"Servile", "abhors", "disgusting", "vulgar", "betrayal". Definitely a word from the moral swamps.

So maybe the armed civilian guards who were ambushed in Falluja were hired soldiers, in a technical definition of the term, and maybe not -- it depends on their job description. You wouldn't call Brinks guards "soldiers", for example. But whether to call the Falluja victims "mercenaries" or not depends as much on your politics as on the facts, given the denotations as well as connotations of the word. Sawicky is right about that.

Posted by Mark Liberman at April 6, 2004 06:55 AM