For The Sunday Gazette


               "When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—
         neither more nor less."

                "The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
        "The question is," said Humpty Dumpty, "which is to be Master—that's all."

“Through the Looking Glass,” by Lewis Carroll

A lady once asked Samuel Johnson, “Why, sir, in your famous dictionary, did you define pastern as the knee of a horse rather than part of its foot.?” Without hesitation, he answered, "Ignorance, Madam, pure ignorance."

But simpler words can cause trouble too. I was reminded of this by the Gazette story of Friday, March 31, in which it was reported that Niskayuna Town Justice Paul Zonderman had to cope with an attorney’s unusual definition of  delivery.” Defending against the Town Building Inspector’s accusation that the department store he represented had been accepting noisy deliveries at proscribed early hours, the lawyer claimed that products had been “delivered” during the afternoon but only “unloaded” early the following morning. The judge would have none of it, saying “I find the semantic distinction between ‘delivering’ and ‘unloading’ to be naďve at best, and disingenuous at worst. I find that one cannot avoid the consequences of a prohibited delivery by separating the elements of which it is composed.”

Shades of meaning of even very short words can also cause trouble. President Clinton was almost impeached because of his famous utterance “It all depends on what the meaning of ‘is” is,” trying, too pedantically perhaps, to convey the idea that something that once was no longer was when in fact it once was. (See how hard it is to define little words?)

But my favorite quote regarding small words, three-letter ones in this case, is what Mary McCarthy said about another writer, Lillian Hellman, some years ago: "Everything she writes is a lie, including 'and' and 'the.'"

More serious than these (true) anecdotes is what has happened to what was once the perfectly well understood three-letter word “war.” Based on a blend of what several dictionaries say, “war” is an armed conflict between governments, pursued until surrender of one or a declared truce. Even the Hundred Years War finally ended, albeit after 116 of them—1337 to 1455. But when will the War on Poverty be over? Was Jesus wrong to say “The poor will always be with you.”? When will the War on Drugs be over, when the state and federal governments finally realize the adverse unintended consequences of trying to outlaw some chemical formulas but not others? When will the War on Crime be over?

And when can the War on Terrorism possibly be over? The problem here is that there can be no “war” on abstract nouns like poverty and crime and terrorism because there are no governments that can surrender to the efforts to eradicate them. However much our President was lampooned for flaunting his “Mission Accomplished” banner, the Iraq “war” was indeed over when Sadam’s government collapsed. Armed conflict continues and people die in large numbers daily, but, what is happening does not fit the definition of “war.”

World Wars I and II were formally declared wars. The problem began in 1950 when President Truman, rather than asking Congress for a declaration of war against North Korea, called it a “police action” that warranted sending U.S. troops to defend South Korea under U.N. auspices. Did he have that authority as Commander-in-Chief? I didn’t give much thought to this while at RPI back then; I just promptly joined the ROTC and, by the time I served my promised two-years of active duty as an Air Force lieutenant assigned to the National Security Agency in Washington, the “war” was over. Those were the good old days when the NSA stuck to its mission of listening in on only the communications of potentially hostile foreign operatives; no American citizens needed fear erosion of their Fourth Amendment rights.

The relevance to today is that Attorney General Alberto Gonzales  believes that a Commander-in-Chief, during a “war,” has more power, virtually unlimited power, to ignore perfectly constitutional  laws passed by Congress. But the pertinent clause of the Constitution merely says that the President is Commander-in-Chief of the Armed Forces, period. While the country is at peace, a Commander-in-Chief can order an existing fleet to change oceans, or order an existing army to go on maneuvers, but only Congress can raise an army or navy and fund it, or declare the war that would empower the President to send troops into battle. And neither Congress nor the President can violate the Fourth Amendment through use of searches or seizures or eavesdropping without a warrant issued by the third, theoretically co-equal branch of government, the judiciary.

And what, pray tell, is an “enemy combatant”? The phrase appears nowhere in the Constitution, although it does have precedents that go back long before the current Administration. But it is now being used  by a President who claims the right to detain American citizens indefinitely, even those seized in this country, without formally charging them with a crime, much less granting them a trial, because we are engaged in the kind of “war” that can never be won.

This piece is having a hard time getting written; events unfold too fast. Now White House press secretary Scott McClellan, echoing the opinion of Vice President Cheney’s Chief of Staff David Addington, claims that it is impossible for the President to “leak” classified information because his doing so automatically declassifies it with no need to go through the standard declassification procedure. 

So how many words has the king redefined now? “Classified”? I don’t think so. “Leak”? Let’s not go there. Ah, but “impossible”—the queen can help with that:


        "I can't believe that!" said Alice.

        "Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."

         Alice laughed. "There's no use trying," she said. "One can't believe impossible things."

       "I dare say you haven't had much practice," said the queen. "When I was your age, I always did it for half an hour a day. 

        Why, sometimes I've believed as many as six impossible things before breakfast."


Edwin D. Reilly, Jr., who is no longer with NSA, lives in Niskayuna and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Gazette opinion pages.



In retrospect, I should also have discussed the nuances of "declare" and "declaration." A few days after I submitted this piece,  I received my April 27  issue of the New York  Review of Books.  In it, in an article called "Word Wizard," Andrew  O'Hagan reviews  a  book by Henry Hitchings  entitled Defining the World: The Extraordinary Story of Dr.  Johnson's Dictionary.  The review tells how the book relates that the Supreme Court relied  on Samuel. Johnson's definition of "declare" to decide that  Congress  had indeed  given President Clinton the authority to  use force  in the Kosovo  war.   According to Johnson, to "declare" is "to clear, to free from obscurity" and "to make known, to tell evidently and openly." Even though the Congressional Resolution on which the President relied did not use any form of the word "declare," the Court ruled that the wording of the relevant Congressional resolution met its definition and hence was equivalent to a declaration of war.