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  • Defining civil war, or, the current unpleasantness in Iraq

    It’s not often that lexicographers get to weigh in on matters of national policy.  But since the war in Iraq has now been dubbed a civil war by the news media, and not-a-civil-war by the president, it might be useful to see how the dictionary-makers deal with civil war.

    While our public figures argue over the elements needed for civil war – formal battles between uniformed armies, explicit political agendas, struggle over control of government, requisite number of casualties –our lexicographers have no trouble agreeing on a definition.  

    In his 1755 dictionary, Samuel Johnson specifies civil war as internal, not foreign. Webster’s Unabridged Dictionary of 1913 elaborates on this: civil wars are conflicts between different sections or parties of the same country or nation, a definition that continues to appear today in Webster’s Third.  Pretty much on the same page, the great American post-Civil War Century Dictionary calls civil war “a war between different factions of a people or between different sections of a country.”  And the Oxford English Dictionary agrees that civil wars “occur among fellow-citizens or within the limits of one community.”  

    All of this suggests that the media, not the president, got the definition right.  But presidents have a way of rewriting definitions when it suits their purpose.  Harry Truman could have called the Korean conflict a civil war, since it involved two warring sections fighting for control of what had recently been one country.  But to get around the Constitution’s requirement that only Congress can declare war, he defined Korea as a “police action” instead.  

    Some political observers insist that whether or not Iraq is in a state of civil war is merely a question of definitions, as if definitions don’t reflect reality, they just put a spin on it.  But president Bush, who sees himself as the definer and is never reticent about taking the language into his own hands, disagrees not just with long-dead lexicographers, but with the historians and political scientists who called the situation in Iraq a civil war even before the media picked up the term.  

    According to the president, although Iraq is rife with sectarian violence, which in itself seems to meet both strict and broad definitions of civil war, that violence is caused by outside agitators: take Al Qaida out of Iraq and the nation will become a peaceable kingdom, or better yet, a peaceable democracy. 

    The president is conceding that the situation in Iraq isn’t exactly under control: “No question, it’s tough,” he told the press.  But he continues to define Iraq as not-a-civil-war  to get around the political awkwardness of acknowledging that American troops find themselves caught between warring Iraqi factions. 

    Samuel Johnson defined lexicographers as harmless drudges, which suggests they're not out to change the world.  But Johnson had no problem using the dictionary to express his personal opinion, and his self-deprecating humor is Johnson's way of saying that word users shouldn't ignore dictionary-makers. 

    The American lexicographer Noah Webster, whose name is synonymous with dictionaries, also saw nothing wrong with turning the dictionary into a bully pulpit.  In his 1828 American Dictionary of the English Language, Webster adds a short sermon to his entry on war: “Very few of the wars that have desolated nations and deluged the earth with blood, have been justifiable.”  Webster goes on to proclaim that the adoption of Christian principles would go a long way toward ending war, a faith-based definition not likely to increase dictionary sales in Baghdad, Ankara or Kabul.

    Maybe president Bush’s reluctance to make the dictionary his guide stems from his inherent distrust of activist lexicographers like Johnson and Webster, who seem bent on making language instead of just interpreting it.  Or maybe he just didn’t listen in school when his teachers told him, if you don’t know what a word means, you could look it up.

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