Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Alteration We Can Believe In?

The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Obama administration is "urging protesters from Bahrain to Morocco to work with existing rulers toward what some officials and diplomats are now calling 'regime alteration.'" That sounds like a kinder, gentler version of regime change, which itself has a euphemistic ring to it. If President Obama came into office riding a wave of change, why is that word suddenly problematic?

The term regime change has something of a checkered past in diplomacy circles. William Safire, my predecessor in writing the now-suspended On Language column in The New York Times Magazine, tackled the expression twice, in 2002 and 2008. As Safire explained, even though the Oxford English Dictionary traces its usage back to 1925, it became a foreign-policy catchphrase in the 1990s. The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, signed by President Clinton, called for the toppling of Saddam Hussein under the name of regime change. The expression returned in full force in the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003, and opponents of President Bush's foreign policy countered with the slogan ''Regime Change Begins at Home'' in the 2004 elections.

Safire glossed regime change as a euphemism for "overthrow of government," toned down for the careful phrasing of the diplomatic set: "Overthrow and topple are hot, vigorous verbs; regime change is a cool, polite noun phrase suggesting transition without collateral damage." But now, apparently, the coolness of regime change isn't quite cool enough when it comes to U.S. policies on the shaky governments of the Middle East. Alteration is now the name of the game. (The Wall Street Journal notes that Libya is the exception to the moderate policy of regime alteration: there, we're committed to good old-fashioned regime change against Muammar Qaddafi.)

Diplomacy is a game of nuances, of course, and the shades of meaning between change and alteration are fine indeed. Change covers a broader semantic sweep, indicating any act of making something different. From that overarching sense, we can discern two main uses: "substitution of one thing for another" and "modification in the quality of something." Both of these subsenses go back to the 13th century, according to the OED. We associate regime change with the first of those senses, a wholesale replacement of one government with another. Avoiding those more drastic connotations requires a change of terms, to the more innocuous-sounding alteration. That's something a tailor would do to a suit or some other article of clothing: take in a little here, let out a little there.

Critics of the Obama administration were natually chortling at what they saw as a milquetoast response to the rapidly shifting geopolitics of the Middle East, especially under a president who campaigned so forcefully for "Change We Can Believe In." On the Daily Caller, Mickey Kaus had fun with the terminological rollback. "Good luck to Obama with that. But doesn't 'regime alteration' sound a bit harsh? I mean, if you were the ruler of Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, would you want your regime 'altered.'" So instead, Kaus playfully suggested "other, even more diplomatic euphemisms":

  • Regime adjustment
  • Regime reorientation
  • Regime relaunch!
  • Regime reimagining
  • Regime augmentation
  • Regime enhancement
  • Regime makeover
  • Regime rehab!
  • Regime transcendence
  • Regime self-realization
  • Regime de-reification
  • Regime rejiggering
  • Regime +
  • Regime renewal
  • Regime remix
  • Regime rightsizing
  • Regime detox
  • Regime, Platinum Edition
  • Regime: The Director's Cut 

And commenters chimed in with their own contributions: "regime pivot," "regime reboot," "re-regime" (the last of which could serve as a verb, Kaus said: "We had to re-regime Bahrain last week. Riots got out of hand.")

All in good fun, but the Obama administration is hardly the first one that has tried to find soft words for hard foreign-policy decisions. Ralph Keyes, in his new book Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms (reviewed by Mark Peters here) devotes a whole chapter to "words of war," with examples going back to World War I. Lyndon Johnson spoke of our incursion or intervention in Vietnam, later echoed by George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq. The addition of thousands of additional troops in Iraq in 2006 was first called an augmentation by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who preferred that term to escalation. Of course, the Bush administration eventually dubbed this the surge, which Keyes says "actually euphemized the more controversial but accurate term counterinsurgency."

The moral of the story: If you ever want to become a diplomat or foreign policy adviser, be prepared to make many alterations to your language!

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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Comments from our users:

Friday March 11th 2011, 3:46 AM
Comment by: Mark K. (New York, NY)
The sad thing about words is that they are never complete maps to the situations they describe.

"Regime Change" is no more a real description off the situation before the Obama administration than the words, "Burning Passion" form a complete description of a love-affair. I am sure it is all in good schadenfreude to point out the President's linguistic fence-sitting in well-written sneering, but it would be well to remember what pieces like this lose to ellipsis.

The last time around, "regime change" meant thousands of dead and wounded U.S. service personnel; it meant an eruption of sectarian violence; it meant kidnappings, ambushes and beheadings and roadside bombs; it meant an increase in the active influence of Iran and Al-Qaida (which S. Hussein had successfully kept out of Iraq); it meant an end to the long-standing suppression of types and styles of religious fervor that would have been perfectly at home in the Middle Ages ("sister, cover your hair" and attacks on shops that sold alcohol) and it meant the disruption of oil production in the country topped off by a mind-stunning debt-load related to these accomplishments.

We paid and we are still paying for all of these things to happen.

On the plus side, we did buy a video of Saddam Hussein meeting his death by hanging not kicking, screaming and begging for mercy, but with a manly calm alternated with curses for his tormentors--one in which he went to his death like a man who had done everything right and who was leaving the world without regrets--and this not too far removed in time from when we were to be collectively revealed to not only sanction the same torture that we had reviled in Iraq under Saddam Hussein, but that we had taken over the practice of it at Abu Ghraib.

Did I say that was the plus side? I was mistaken, there *IS* no plus side.

With this in mind, the President’s caution is perfectly understandable: we know by experience that no matter who wins in any of the current potential civil wars brewing in the Middle-East, we in America have a lot to lose.
Friday March 11th 2011, 5:43 AM
Comment by: Gordon W. (Jonesboro, GA)
Anonymous, go peddle your wornout BS some other place. Leave this site for language junkies. Good article, Ben
Friday March 11th 2011, 9:42 AM
Comment by: Danny H.
Well said, Gordon!

What annoys me about these semantics is that someone in Washington really thinks that using "regime alteration" vs "regime change" will cause us poor common folk to conclude that "Hey, this isn't the same as the Bush plicies, its totally different! Its "alteration" not "change"!

Do the politicians really have that low an opinion of the general public? I agree that is important to use the words that reflect your intent, but this sort of meaningless word jousting gets down right insulting. But then again, we did elect them.....
Friday March 11th 2011, 2:42 PM
Comment by: Mr. Natural (Sabaneta/Medellin Colombia)
Just another 'regime redux'!
Saturday March 12th 2011, 3:54 PM
Comment by: Margaret M. (Nashville, TN)
Well! And I had just thought to myself that "anonymous" had said a whole lot of Truth. I wanted to add my, "Amen to that."

I care about language and words. I wouldn't be reading VT if I didn't. I always appreciate Ben Zimmer's columns on euphemisms. They are the entertaining ways that we express delicate issues without being blatant. But, when it's war we're talking about, it's not only cute, clever, or slick to avoid stating what we really mean; it can be politically convenient and comforting, yet morally dishonest to gloss over ugly reality. So, I thank "anonymous" for raising the issue of what is being avoided. To me, that's a noble use of language.
Sunday March 13th 2011, 2:38 PM
Comment by: christiane P. (paris Afghanistan)
It is undeniable that "Regime change" with tensions and spill blood.
Monday March 14th 2011, 5:08 PM
Comment by: Edward C. (Anchorage, AK)
The really cool thing about the Egyptian "Regime Alteration" is that it followed the Non-Violent philosophy espoused by Gene Sharp in his "From Dictatorship to Democracy" phamplet. This philosophy if followed has a far better chance of success, than the one chosen by the tribes in Libyia.
Monday March 14th 2011, 11:10 PM
Comment by: Mark G.
Excellent article. My own readings of military strategies and foreign policy did not prepare me for the variety of new and turned terms I found popping up, one of which was the subject at hand. Schooled in the more orthodox ways of war histories, I thought "government" or "leadership" would have been plain enough. I suppose the implication of "regime" implies (to some) a comprehensive change, as in military, government, and perhaps even a change in people's outlook (to borrow the old Clausewitz trilogy model). If the administration places high value on a one-word change (alteration), then I suspect the continued internal fault lines of power between DOD and Dept of State continue. Perhaps it signals that we do not intend to be as muscular in policy. But then again, perhaps it means someone in the corridors of power went shopping for a new suit. One never knows.

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