What does 'Terror' mean?
June 11, 2006 12:33 PM   Subscribe

Is the definition of 'terror' as 'Violence committed or threatened by a group to intimidate or coerce a population, as for military or political purposes' a recent development, or a regional variation?

The American Heritage Dictionary includes this as one of its definitions. Merriam-Webster has a similar definition. Coming from the UK, I have never known the word could be used this way. I would use 'terrorism' to mean this. To me, the main definition of 'terror' is an emotion or mental state.

The Oxford English Dictionary seems to agree with me (can't link to it, sorry). It has three definitions: 'The state of being terrified or greatly frightened...', 'The action or quality of causing dread', 'A person (occas., a thing) fancied to excite terror'.

My question: Has this definition of 'terror' as 'an act of violence' been used by US (or other) English speakers for a long time, or is it a new meaning that has resulted from recent political usage?

[Obviously, it affects how you interpret the term 'War on Terror'. I'm interested because of the debate in this thread. However, I'd really like to avoid any political debate here.]
posted by beniamino to Writing & Language (21 answers total) 3 users marked this as a favorite
I have the 1982 Second Concise Edition of the Webster's New World Dictionary here. The 3rd definition of 'terror' is "a program of terrorism".

(Terrorism is defined as "the use of force and violence to intimidate, subjugate, etc. esp. as a political policy".)
posted by smackfu at 12:46 PM on June 11, 2006

Best answer: You haven't read your OED carefully enough. Just below the three definitions you quote:

4. reign of terror, a state of things in which the general community live in dread of death or outrage; esp. (with capital initials) French Hist. the period of the First Revolution from about March 1793 to July 1794, called also the Terror, the Red Terror, when the ruling faction remorselessly shed the blood of persons of both sexes and of all ages and conditions whom they regarded as obnoxious. Hence, without article or pl., the use of organized intimidation, terrorism.

(Last sentence bolded by me for emphasis.) The French Revolution is the classic source of this sense of terror.
posted by languagehat at 1:05 PM on June 11, 2006

See here.
posted by dsword at 1:12 PM on June 11, 2006

Languagehat, et al. It's important that this form of terrorism is state-run. It doesn't make sense of the much more recent (1970s) era usage of 'international terrorism.' I'm not sure when AHD inserted the new definition, but it was before 2001.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:14 PM on June 11, 2006

sorry, I was referring to the OED "reign of terror" definition.
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:15 PM on June 11, 2006

Response by poster: languagehat: I certainly read that part, but I thought it was a definition of 'reign of terror'. Now I see that it is more than that, but I still don't entirely understand it. Can you unpack the 'Hence...' part for someone whose dictionary skills are apparently lacking?

So, my confusion clearly isn't a difference between UK and US difference, or the development of a new usage. And, now I see an example or two, e.g. 'Thanks to their use of terror, they [sc. the Assassins] often controlled local authorities, and forced governments into compliance or impotence.', I recognise this use of the word.

To me at least, the phrase 'War on Terror' implies the 'mental state' meaning. I suppose this is just because it is the primary definition (my three dictionaries agree on that). Other phrases, like 'War on Acts of Terror', 'War on the Use of Terror' or 'War on Reigns of Terror' would not make sense with the 'mental state' meaning, and so force the 'programme of terrorism' meaning. So 'War on Terror' is emotive while still correct. You have to admire the skill.
posted by beniamino at 1:36 PM on June 11, 2006

It's a necessarily confusing set of definitions, because the word 'terror' is being stretched to cover increasingly distinct phenomena. The movement between meanings is pretty clear:
1. French Revolutionary government terrifies its people.
2. Similar forms of state-domination occur in post-revolutionary Russia and Nazi Germany.
3. Revolutionaries of various sorts (communist, anticolonialist, antioccupationists) begin sabotage campaigns against their governments, and are branded with the old word and a new definition. This is classic 'domestic terrorism,' but it was called 'insurrection' in the US under the 1878 Posse Comitatus Act.
4. The Cold War begins, and a variety of low-level hostilities performed by un-uniformed militants are called terrorism to prevent the declaration of war. These include hijackings, always by state-sponsored actors.
5. Israel and Palestine duke it out, call each other terrorists, etc. According to the old definition, Israel is the state, so it's the only terrorist. But the Palestinians are particularly provocative, so they get branded with the same label. Compare this to the various Northern Ireland resistance groups, who were not called terrorists until the seventies.
6. Groups in a bunch of failed states start acting like states, including issuing currency, waging war, and engaging in transparent governance of their people. (Hamas, pre-liberation Taliban, etc.) Since we can't recognize these groups as fellow nation-states, we decided to brand them as terrorists. We -should- have dealt with them as 'pirates.'
posted by anotherpanacea at 1:53 PM on June 11, 2006

beniamino: Well, it's not surprising you had a hard time with it, since it's a badly written paragraph (to be fair, it's probably almost a century old). I suspect when they get around to the T's in their ongoing process of revision, it will look more like this:

4. The use of organized intimidation, terrorism. (From the phrase reign of terror; see below.)

But the way they have it now, they expect you to follow this train of thought: reign of terror got shortened to the (Red) Terror, and then the article (the) got dropped and just plain terror got used in a generalized sense. But of course if you weren't looking for reign of terror in the first place, why would you start reading the paragraph?

anotherpanacea: Sorry, I don't follow you.
posted by languagehat at 1:54 PM on June 11, 2006

On non-preview: My "I don't follow you" was a response to your first comment; I hadn't seen your analysis of the history of the word/concept, which I don't entirely agree with. (There were revolutionary terrorists—called by that word—in the nineteenth century, fighting against governments. "Propaganda by the deed" was considered a good thing by the more radical revolutionaries.)
posted by languagehat at 1:57 PM on June 11, 2006

languagehat: Was that a pre-preview not following, or did you not follow my six-step chart? Were I a prescriptivist, I'd say that the current use is wrong, and that the word 'terrorism' can only apply to state actors, like police or militaries. Instead, I'm just explaining the development of the word as I understand it. Calling it a 'recent' development is as close as I can come to calling it 'wrong' without being inconsistent. But I would say that the word has been stretched in a particularly convenient manner for nation-states, who would like to preserve their monopoly on violence.

On preview: Could you point me to some sources? I'm not aware of that usage at that time.
posted by anotherpanacea at 2:01 PM on June 11, 2006

It seems like "Terrorism" has been around for a while, but what do terrorists do? Well obviously the answer is "Terror" although that usage really bothers me.

It seems like a fundamental difference between "Reign of Terror" terror and "terror" as what terrorists do in that with "Reign of Terror" people felt scared by the actions of the government, but the actions of the government were not supposed to scare people they were simply to dispose of "obnoxious" individuals. So terror in the sense of "scaring people into doing what I want" isn't there.
posted by delmoi at 2:03 PM on June 11, 2006

"Terror" and "Terrorism" are the latest in-words which have been thoroughly abused by people with political agendas, either because they are ignorant or because they are obtuse or because they're deliberately trying to muddy the waters.

In fact, these days the words are little more then epithets.

Terrorism is a classical doctrine of war fighting with a specific technical meaning, but few are familiar with it and a lot who do know what it means have a vested interest in confusing everyone else about it, usually by engaging in tu quoque.

I've written about it here, and later here.

For most people not versed in the doctrine there are two major surprises: 1. Terrorism isn't necessarily violent. 2. The goal of terrorism is to provoke reprisals.

One of the sources of confusion is that "terrorism" is also a tactic, but those carrying out terrorism as a strategic doctrine don't necessarily use "terrorism" tactically, and not everyone who commits terrorist acts is following the strategic doctrine of terrorism. (And that's even ignoring all the ways that the word "terrorist" has been abused over the last five years.)

What I do know for sure is that you won't learn anything about the real meaning by looking in a dictionary.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:32 PM on June 11, 2006

It's worth pointing out here that the US State Department consistently refuses to officially define "terrorism", presumably because there's no workable definition that wouldn't apply to many of the tactics we're using, too.
posted by Aquaman at 4:40 PM on June 11, 2006

Only if the definition is written by Noam Chomsky. My definition works just fine. The reason they haven't defined it is because any definition is bound to be intensely controversial simply because of the political baggage associated with the term in this day and age.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 7:33 PM on June 11, 2006

In my fall 2005 intro political science class at Johns Hopkins the definition of terrorism was given as "deliberate violence against noncombatants to induce fear for a political purpose." The professor (who hailed from the Realist camp of political scientists) did note that the definition is very controversial, and we were being given this one definition so that the class would be on the same page when the term was used.
posted by roomwithaview at 7:37 PM on June 11, 2006

I had hoped to hear more from languagehat on late-19th-century usages of the word, but he has deserted us.

My definition works just fine.

I'm not sure it works well as a definition of terrorism. Your definition certainly describes a thing in the world, so I guess it works in that way. However, you're begging the question by calling that thing 'terrorism,' especially when you define a strategy that looks very similar to what we once called 'rebellion' or 'insurrection.' I guess we now call that the 'freedom fighter' paradox.

If most people won't know what you mean, then you may often find yourself misunderstood. From your self-citations, it looks as if your usage, like my own attempt to reclaim the original meaning, carries a set of assumptions unshared by most English-speakers, at least in the US.
posted by anotherpanacea at 9:57 PM on June 11, 2006

Sorry, I was busy elsewhere.

Here, from the OED entry on terrorist:

b. Any one who attempts to further his views by a system of coercive intimidation.
In early use also applied spec. to members of one of the extreme revolutionary societies in Russia. The term now [i.e., circa 1910—LH] usually refers to a member of a clandestine or expatriate organization aiming to coerce an established government by acts of violence against it or its subjects.

First couple of citations:
1866 FITZPATRICK Sham Sqr. 180 Miss G—, the daughter of a Wexford terrorist, directed many of the tortures which were so extensively practised. 1883 Harper's Mag. Jan. 315/2 To [Russian] Terrorists it guarantees.. security on condition of a.. pledge to abandon.. the revolutionary party.
posted by languagehat at 5:34 AM on June 12, 2006

Hmmm. I must think on this. I've found references to 'religious terrorists' in 1805. Yet Hegel, writing in 1807, seems to identify terrorism as a kind of regime, like monarchy or democracy. Thus, the 'reign of terror,' instead of the people or a king. I'm wondering whether the attribution to the 1793 Terror as the first instance is even authentic; how can the word have changed so much in fifteen years? Or perhaps its development in England is separate from that of the Continent?
posted by anotherpanacea at 8:52 AM on June 12, 2006

I really, really, really wouldn't take Hegel's usage as representative of anyone but Hegel. But that's just me. Anyway, your sense that terrorism didn't apply to nongovernmental entities until the 20th century is clearly wrong. I don't think state/nonstate has ever been an essential element of its definition.
posted by languagehat at 11:11 AM on June 12, 2006

Shit, I meant to italicise terrorism in that last comment. Pretend it's ital, wouldja? Thanks.
posted by languagehat at 11:12 AM on June 12, 2006

Well, in my field, Hegel carries a lot of weight. Continental philosophy in general, and the French in particular, seem enamoured of his definition. But then, they've obviously sided with the 'freedom fighter' model of insurgency. I'm particularly interested in Hannah Arendt, the figure of my current research, who argues persuasively for equating totalitarianism with terrorism, again following Hegel.

But there's a part of the story that I'm missing. Again, I suspect it may lie in a Anglo/Continental difference in usage. Were the English painting the N. Irish with a French event for propaganda reasons? Or does the French Terror derive its meaning from a prior usage, perhaps from the Cromwell era? The French derived their notion of 'revolution' from that era, after all.

I've often noted that historians of ideas make bad philosophers. I suppose it's time to admit the philosophers aren't such good philologists, either. *Sigh*
posted by anotherpanacea at 12:43 PM on June 12, 2006

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