November 08, 2007

Ask Language Log: is "regime" a loaded word?

Joseph Kynaston Reeves wrote:

If you have the time and inclination, I’d be interested to hear your opinion on the word “regime”.  To me, the word, applied to a government, implies a lack of freedom and is implicitly critical of that government.  Going simply by intuition, I’d say that “the Stalinist regime” sounds right while “the Chirac regime” sounds faintly ridiculous.  But I have been informed that the word is “officially” neutral.

If you want to waste a huge amount of time reading the spiteful arguments that led to this query, they’re here. It’s a typically annoying blog-type argument, so I strongly advise you not to read the whole thing.

Joseph's intuition certainly corresponds to the facts: the word regime, used with respect to a specific government, seems in practice to carry a strong sense of disapproval, usually implying a lack of democracy.

The most recent ten examples from a search on the New York Times' web site:

"the Iranian regime", "Saakashvili's regime", "the regime of Saddam Hussein", "the Iranian regime", "the Pyongyang regime", "this regime" [referring to Myanmar], "the Deby regime" [Chad], "the regime in Tehran", "his regime" [referring to Musharraf], "the communist regime", "another military regime in Guatemala" [referring to a hypothetical situation].

All of these are clearly intended as negative characterizations: thus the phrase about the current Georgian government occurred in a quotation, "Saakashvili's regime showed us that it is in no way different from the communist regime whose soldiers beat their citizens with shovels in the same place".

Searching the Washington Post, I get

Musharraf and his regime, the Iraqi regime [= Saddam Hussein], The shah ignored America's admonitions to clean up his undemocratic regime, a regime representative [Myanmar], the Iranian regime, naked political prisoners were tossed from planes to their deaths in the waters under the military regime [in Argentina], condemning the Syrian regime, a heroically observed story of a woman's abortion during the final years of the Ceausescu regime, Irate lawmakers accused them of collaborating with an oppressive communist regime, [etc.]

This is not just a fact about American usage -- a similar search on the BBC News web site (which seems to be ordered by relevance, or perhaps randomly, rather than by date) turns up these ten headline fragments at the top of the list:

Torture Victims During Pinochet Regime, The Tsar's regime till 1914, Burma regime 'frees 70 detainees', Cambodia's brutal Khmer Rouge regime, Slovak bishop praises Nazi regime, the regime of Robert Mugabe, Saddam Hussein's regime, Swazi lawyers sue king's regime, Horrors of the Abacha regime, Machel death 'linked' to apartheid regime

Similar searches on the sites of a number of other U.S. and U.K. publications have similar results. I won't bore you with the entire list of examples, but only one example of regime applied to a contemporary European government by a mainstream publication tuined up -- in an editorial on the Telegraph's web site criticizing "the new prime minister's first Queen's Speech ("Fiddling, not vision", 11/7/2007):

Many of the measures were, in fact, resumptions of business as usual under the Blair-Brown regime of the past decade: yet more legislative mechanisms in which the intrusive hand of the bureaucratic state meddles in areas that are inappropriate or faintly absurd.

Even if we search explicitly for such uses, the results underline the point. A search on Google News for "Merkel regime" comes up empty, though "Merkel government" has 52 hits; and a search for "Prodi regime" turns up just one example, in the communist paper Worker's World ("1 million-plus take to streets", 10/24/2007): "The strong Oct. 20 action shows that a large section of the Italian working class refuses to accept this collaboration with the 'lesser-evil' Prodi regime."

The OED takes note of this negative connotation. Its first sense for regime is the (here irrelevant) one that means "regimen", i.e.

This is not a diet to enter upon without medical prescription... To embark on this régime without due regard to the consequences may delay diagnosis of other disorders.

The second sense is the one in question:

2. a. A manner, method, or system of rule or government; a system or institution having widespread influence or prevalence. Now freq. applied disparagingly to a particular government or administration.

The earliest OED citation that seems to carry the disparaging connotation is this one:

1955 Times 2 May 8/3 But none of us is prepared, either, to bolster up the aging régime of Chiang Kai-shek. Ibid. 11/5 Only King Saud and the régime in the Yemen (which recently survived in undiminished medieval splendour an abortive coup d'État) remain patently faithful to Egypt.

There are other meanings of regime that are evaluatively neutral -- e.g. "regime theory" in political science, where regime refers to a set of "principles, norms, rules, and decision making procedures" that apply in international relations. But anyone who claims that regime is a neutral term for "government" in contemporary usage is either dishonest or tone deaf.

[Benjamin Zimmer sent in a famous example from the pop culture of the 1970s, applied to a recent Western European government but also supporting the view that regime is a negatively-evaluated word:

God save the Queen
The fascist regime
Made you a moron
A potential H-bomb.
God save the Queen
She ain't no human being
There ain't no future
In England's dream.
-- The Sex Pistols, "God Save the Queen" (May 1977)


Posted by Mark Liberman at November 8, 2007 06:45 AM