WAR OF WORDS
By EDWIN D. REILLY, Jr.
For The Sunday Gazette
I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said in rather a scornful tone, "it means
just what I choose it to mean—
—“Through the Looking Glass,” by Lewis Carroll
A lady once asked Samuel
sir, in your famous dictionary, did you define pastern as the knee
of a horse rather than part of its foot.?”
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
Paul Zonderman had to cope with an attorney’s unusual definition of “delivery.”
against the Town Building Inspector’s accusation that the department
represented had been accepting noisy deliveries at proscribed early
lawyer claimed that products had been “delivered” during the afternoon
“unloaded” early the following morning. The judge would have none of
“I find the semantic distinction between ‘delivering’ and ‘unloading’
naďve at best, and disingenuous at worst. I find that one cannot avoid
consequences of a prohibited delivery by separating the elements of
which it is
Shades of meaning of even
words can also cause trouble. President Clinton was almost impeached
his famous utterance “It all depends on what the meaning of ‘is” is,”
too pedantically perhaps, to convey the idea that something that once
longer was when in fact it once was. (See how hard it is to define
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
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
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
"Can't you?" the queen said in a pitying tone. "Try again, draw a long breath, and shut your eyes."
"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."
Reilly, Jr., who is no
longer with NSA, lives in
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