Speaking with an entomologist the other day, I learned that Bin Laden and/or Al Qaeda once held a stake in a honey factory in Yemen. Apparently honey was used to smuggle heroin. I haven't confirmed this just yet, but my interests at the moment are purely journo-linguistic. In my notes, I hastily typed "Bin Ladin" and "Al Qeda." I corrected the misspellings later, but doing so got me thinking about correct language.

I've seen a number of media commentaries about varying and variable use of 'terrorists,' 'insurgents,' 'revolutionaries,' 'extremists,' 'jihadists,' 'fundamentalists,' 'militants,' and the like. I don't think this is political-correctness wordplay. In the war of ideas, how could diction not matter? But a slipperier question might be: Are really bad people, or groups of people, worthy of attention to accuracy, spelling or otherwise? In a way, it feels like paying respect to something, anything, to double-check how to spell its name.

True, it's a courtesy first and foremost to readers to use words that are easily recognizable (read: read), and it sure would be clunky to refer to terrorist groups, however motley, as 'those psychopaths who call themselves 'Al Qeda' or some such.' Yet the great human enterprise of naming things, and doing so with care, inevitably shapes reality, and I can't help but wonder if naming in some small way legitimizes hodgepodge clusters of homicidal haters more than they deserve. Then again, I don't see much in the way of alternatives, short of the Harry Potter-ish 'he whose name must not be spoken,' which is totally impractical, silly, and wordy.
AuthorDavid Wolman