As a writer, I am rather fond of words. They are the basic building blocks of my art, as much so as a potter depends on clay, or a musician needs those notes. I enjoy word play, and obscure definitions, and even on occasion, crossword puzzles. I am not a grammar Nazi, or a spelling freak (I let my editor deal with those things), but it does drive me nuts when people use the wrong word in a misguided belief that must mean what they want it to mean.
Now, sometimes I deliberately misuse a word for comedic effect, or to help illustrate a character’s ignorance. I am not blameless in mistaking one word for another either. There were 7 instances of unintentional word usage in the final draft of my last book. Thankfully Duncan Eagleson caught them and pointed them out to me.
I also take the opposite stance on pronunciation, and recently had a rousing debate with S.J. Tucker on facebook over the assumption that there is any “one correct way” to pronounce any given word – as that is totally dependent on regional dialect and changing trends in spoken language. Our differences were resolved amicably and her music still rocks 😉
But definitions? Those are a bit more rigid, and they should be. If one assumes that a word can mean whatever they want it to mean, then nobody can communicate clearly and the message is ultimately lost. If enough people shout out one word when they actually mean another, then it all just becomes hateful, ignorant noise. And that is what bugs me.
People totally have a right to be upset about something. But if you want your message to be heard, and taken seriously, you really need to use the right words. Case in point, today’s peeve: treason.
I am not going to get political here, but recently a group of US Senators stepped outside their defined duties to contact a foreign government of Iran with a warning regarding treaty negotiations. This is arguably, a very stupid move, a very bad thing, and possibly illegal.
However, despite headlines to the contrary, and the wrath of people posting on social media. It is not in fact the crime of treason.
Why not? It is a simple matter of definition.
18 U.S. Code § 2381 – Treason
Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason and shall suffer death, or shall be imprisoned not less than five years and fined under this title but not less than $10,000; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States. (copied from https://www.law.cornell.edu/uscode/text/18/2381)
2: the offense of attempting by overt acts to overthrow the government of the state to which the offender owes allegiance or to kill or personally injure the sovereign or the sovereign’s family (Merriam-Webster)
So, did the senators levy war against the US with their actions?
Did they adhere to our enemies (this means give them material support)?
Legal definition done. They did not commit treason. End of story. Oh but wait, maybe they meant the dictionary definition of treason. Let’s check that one too.
Did they betray a trust?
Not really. They were not entrusted to do anything. The president certainly has no reason to trust them.
Did they attempt by overt acts to overthrow the government, or kill/personally injure the sovereign (or his family)?
Well, they were overt in their actions. I mean, they published their letter on twitter. But they were not acting to overthrow the government or kill the sovereign.
In the end, treason is an awesome sounding word. It strikes fear and anger in those who read it. It paints these senators as guilty of a crime that we know (even if we do not recall the exact definition) is really bad. People are put to death for treason. This is an awesome rallying cry!
Except, it is the wrong word. Because of this, it is easy to wave away accusations of wrong doing. Anybody that knows the law, knows that these folks did not commit treason. It just adds to the political sparring, and nothing substantial gets done. So what if instead we used the right word? What if we frame our message with the correct word, and thus cannot be tossed away as ignorant and incorrect.
That word, by the way, is sabotage.
Still a very powerful word. But it isn’t treason.