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  • Noah Webster’s Word of the Year for 1828 was torture, too

    Noah Webster defines torture, 1828
    Noah Webster defines torture, 1828

    It’s December, and time to choose the Word of the Year, the word or phrase that represents the very best of 2014. That’s a heavy burden for a year full of very worsts, from ISIS, Boko Haram, and the Pakistani Taliban to Ebola, Hands up! Don’t shoot, and I can’t breathe. The promising Arab Spring has faded, not so gracefully, into the Arab Winter, and the umbrella protests in Hong Kong this Fall did little to improve the climate of democracy in China.

    Speaking of winter, December brought enhanced interrogation techniques, or EITs, back into our vocabularyThis euphemism for torture resurfaced with the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA detention and questioning of terror suspects. Coming as it does at the end of a year of one bad thing after another, torture is my choice for the 2014 Word of the Year: it’s the epitome of what went wrong, not just with counterterrorism, but with everything.

    But first, the other words of the year. There’s no shortage of these, though none so bleak as torture. Every major dictionary has already picked its #wordoftheyear: Merriam-Webster selected culture; Oxford Dictionaries chose vape, ‘inhaling the vapour [sic] of an ecigarette’; Collins lobbed photobomb at us; Chambers told us more than we needed to know about overshare; and the Australian National Dictionary confronted us with shirtfront. A football term signaling a confrontation, shirtfront became popular among politicians for off-the-field encounters, though the best definition remains ‘something to spill soup on.’

    Every major country picks a word of the year as well. The German WOTY is Lichtgrenze, ‘border of light,’ a display commemorating the fall of the Berlin Wall, a noble sentiment considering that Germany’s year ended with a string of anti-immigrant protests by pinstriped Nazis. The Dutch picked Dagobertducktaks, a Scrooge McDuck tax on the rich, for their word of the year, and Japan named a hike in the sales tax, or zei, 稅, kanji of the year. The Danish word of the year is also financial: MobilePay, ‘paying for something on your phone,’ and it’s also an English word, not a Danish one. New Zealand picked dirty politics, apparently new to that country, though it’s the perennial word of the year in Chicago. Norway picked Fremmedkriger, ‘foreign fighter,’ a negative term for a Norwegian who goes abroad to fight for ISIL or some other Middle Eastern insurgency. 

    Perhaps the most depressing candidate for word of the year is hostage selfie, a phrase describing a macabre act of terror tourism where spectators snapped selfies outside the Lindt Chocolat Café in Sydney, Australia, while a crazed gunman held seventeen hostages inside for sixteen hours. By the end of the siege three people, including the hostage taker, were dead, and although selfies are by definition ego-shots, most people found the extreme egotism in this case to be intolerable.

    Hostage selfie

    hostage selfie: not the word of the year in Australia

    Word of the Year competitions are new, but even the old lexicographers singled out their favorite words for special notice. Samuel Johnson was prescient when he chose internets as the best word of 1755, the year he published his great Dictionary of the English Language. The modern internet has never been word of the year (though information superhighway got the nod in 1993). Dr Johnson, for whom the internets were indeed a series of tubes, defined them as,

    [a]ny virtual system of nodes reticulated or decussated, at equal distances, with interstices at the intersections.

    Dr Johnson defines internets

    Not to be outdone, the American lexicographer Noah Webster nominated torture for best word of 1828, defining it in his American Dictionary of the English Language in terms that could have come right out of a Bush White House memorandum:

    Severe pain inflicted judicially, either as a punishment for a crime, or for the purpose of extorting a confession from an accused person. Torture may be and is inflicted in a variety of ways, as by water or fire, or by the boot or thumbkin. But the most usual mode is by the rack or wheel.

    [thumbkins are thumbscrews; the boot was an iron case used to shatter the leg bones. This 1715 citation, from the OED, explains, “They put a pair of iron boots close on the leg, and drive wedges between these and the leg.”]

    Although it has long since been discredited as a way of obtaining reliable information, torture seemed as normal a way to get a confession to Noah Webster in 1828 as it did to Dick Cheney and the CIA after 9/11. By the mid-nineteenth century, however, torture had come to be frowned on. In 1849 Macaulay said, “According to law, torture . . . could not . . . be inflicted on an English subject” (Oxford English Dictionary, s.v.), and the Century Dictionary (1889-91) defines torture as,

    a supposed means of extorting the truth from an accused person . . . . Its infliction on captured enemies is a common practice among savage peoples [emphasis added].

    But recently former Vice President Cheney vigorously defended the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques—“I would do it again in a minute,” Cheney said on “Meet the Press” on Dec. 14— and though waterboarding is now illegal, and there are no plans to bring back either thumbkin or boot, Noah Webster felt compelled to update his definition of torture just in time for it to win the 2014 word of the year award:

    Severe pain inflicted judicially, either as a punishment for a crime, or for the purpose of extorting a confession from an accused person. Torture may be and is inflicted in a variety of ways, as by water or fire, or by the boot, the thumbkin, or the rack or wheel. But the most usual mode in these times of the enhancèd interrogatory is by the waterboard.

    Noah Webster updates his definition of torture for 2014

    Finally, France picked médicalmant, ‘a drug for calming,’ as its word of the year. To counteract the lexical malaise of 2014, take two of these on New Year's Eve and call me in the morning.

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