Behind the Dictionary

Lexicographers Talk About Language

Nobody Likes a Whistleblower (or a Wrayer, Quadruplator, or Emphanist)

A law firm that specializes in defending whistleblowers has started a petition on change.org to persuade dictionaries and thesauruses to ditch their derogatory synonyms for whistleblower in favor of positive terms:

[W]histleblowers are increasingly stepping forward on behalf of the public good. Yet that old school-yard mentality of "nobody likes a snitch" persists. It's high time for a change.

The lawyers want the definers of English to replace negative synonyms like betrayer, fink, and snitch with uplifting ones like watchdog, truthteller, and fraud-buster. All these negatives "mean fewer people coming forward to protect us when they see something wrong." And that, in turn, means fewer whistleblowers fired, disciplined, or fleeing to Russia, which equals fewer clients for the firm.

There are laws protecting whistleblowers, and both government and corporate policies of "see something, say something." And once in a while a whistleblower is celebrated as a hero, like when Upton Sinclair exposed the unsavory practices of the meatpacking industry in The Jungle in 1906, though five publishers rejected the book because it was too negative, plus, nobody likes a whistleblower.

And that's the problem: whistleblowing may lead to beneficial change, but it's also true that nobody likes a whistleblower. Most dictionaries and thesauruses list a few negative synonyms for whistleblower, but the Oxford English Dictionary, which is not a target of the petition, lists 56 synonyms, and all but one or two of them are negative. That's because speakers of English, the ultimate source of dictionary definitions, don't like whistleblowers. And even if a petition suddenly made whistleblowers popular, law firms specializing in whistleblower cases would still have fewer clients.

But that's not going to happen, because, whether or not you're a fan of the surveillance state, not liking whistleblowers is nothing new. According to the online OED's built-in historical thesaurus, negative terms for whistleblower are among the oldest negative words in English, going back to wrayer, used around 1100 to mean ‘betrayer, snitch.' Others include: wrobber, denunciator, sycophant, quadruplator, emphanist, whiddler, runner, slag, squeak, type, telegraph, pig, rounder, screamer, shopper, narker, tout, rat fink, informer, and deep throat. That's a whole lot of negativity, and it suggests that even if whistleblowers perform a valuable service, they themselves are not perceived as folks you'd want to hang around with, let alone friend on Facebook. The lawyers at whistleblower-insider.com might want the likes of Julian Assange and Edward Snowden for clients, but they might not want to meet them for a pint after work.

It's true that many of the OED's synonyms for informer are obsolete. These days no one launches petition drives to redeem the image of whiddlers and quadruplators, hoping that more whiddlers and quadruplators will come forward to report fraud, waste, or abuse. But the OED also tells us that there has never been a time when English was without a word for whistleblower, or when words for whistleblower have not been negative. The whistleblower's image has never been good.

It doesn't look like change.org's whistleblower petition is going to succeed, especially because so far, only 69 people have signed it. That's not enough of a groundswell to improve the whistleblower's dictionary profile. Plus signing a petition isn't enough to change a definition. You actually have to start using whistleblower and its synonyms both positively and often to effect that kind of change.

Of course, it would be great if petitions could change English, but as the exchange below shows, it takes more than 100,000 signatures to do that.

Dear Mr. Webster:

Life today is so indefinite, so uncertain. I'm sure that if you got rid of the indefinite pronoun and the word "uncertainty," things would get better. I am attaching a change.org petition with 100,000 signatures. If you do not do this, we will not read your dictionary.

Yours truly,

Unsure in Missoula

_____

Dear Unsure in Missoula:

We feel your pain. But if you want to change the dictionary, petitioning us won't help. Of course, every lexicographer has their price, especially ones like us who are former wealthy Nigerian princes and princesses. So please send us your banking particulars and wire $1.74 million to show your good faith to our account at the Cayman Islands Bank. Once we receive confirmation that the funds have been deposited, we will mail you a certificate suitable for framing making you the boss of English, and we will turn our attention to defining drinks with little paper umbrellas in them on the beach.

Good luck,

Noah Webster signature

N. Webster

In short, petitioning lexicographers to change a definition has about as much chance of working as sending them threatening letters made up of words cut out of magazines.

Ransom note

For a historical perspective on the shifting meanings of whistleblower, see Ben Zimmer's Word Routes column.


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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois and writes regularly on linguistic issues at The Web of Language. He is the author of A Better Pencil: Readers, Writers, and the Digital Revolution. You can follow him on Twitter @DrGrammar. Click here to read more articles by Dennis Baron.

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