Word Choice: Declaring a Revolution

Tuesday, February 01, 2011

 Protestors defy the curfew in Tahrir Square on January 31, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. Protestors defy the curfew in Tahrir Square on January 31, 2011 in Cairo, Egypt. (Getty Images)

In media coverage of recent events in Egypt, one word is used more cautiously than any other: revolution.

While that doesn't hold true for editorials, the fact is that major news outlets have avoided using the term in their reporting. You would be hard-pressed to find an instance of the word in non-opinion pieces (outside of quotations) in the online incarnations of New York Times, CNN, the Wall Street Journal, MSNBC, or Fox News. The Daily Beast is comfortable using the word in headlines and tags, but not in the body of any article.

It appears that the Associated Press has embargoed "revolution." Words like uprising, revolt, upheaval, chaos, and unrest are much easier to come by; "anti-government protests" appears to be the safest phrase. A search for "Egypt revolution" on Al-Jazeera English returns a single occurrence of the word: the last paragraph of an opinion piece.

That's with good reason—after all, we're not sure if what's happening in Egypt is really a revolution, at least not yet. Merriam-Webster provides three definitions for the word:

a : a sudden, radical, or complete change

b : a fundamental change in political organization; especially: the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed

c : activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation

This is certainly a sudden, radical, and complete change in the visible character of Egypt, and there's definitely "activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes." But Hosni Mubarak is still the president and the ruling government remains intact. One could argue that a revolution is only a revolution once it's over. For example, the marches in Tiananmen Square? Protests. Bahrain in 1990? Intifada. Student demonstrations in Burma in 1988? Uprising. All ended in quashed dissent at the hands of the military and a more-or-less complete return to the status quo. Revolution was arrested.

For a succinct explanation of the distinction between a revolution and something else, look no further than CNN's Fareed Zakaria.


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Comments [2]

Ed Resor from Manhattan

I have witnessed for 36 years the revolution in Southern Sudan whose people have won their right to freedom and equality after 65 years overcoming terrible slavery, oppression, and exploitatation and over 2 millions of deaths in a country of less than 10 million people.

In spite of all this, the Southern Sudanese know that the most difficult part is still ahead of them. They must build a democratic government that respects and protects the rights of all it citizens and is able to prevent a civil war and limit the effects of sabotage and coruption from within and without the new nation.

They wish their Sudanese, Egyptian, Tunisian, African, and Arab brothers and sisters success with the same challenge and believe that the succes of one will support the eventual success of all, God willing.

Feb. 09 2011 01:46 PM
Esperanza Brizuela-Garcia from Easton, PA

Since I first heard this call I felt a significant unease at the use of the word revolution. Admitting that it is loaded is not enough to justify its use, and the attempt to justify its use is pretty poor. Even if we were to agree upon the definition from Merriam-Webster, I still think one can debate whether what is happening in Egypt is in fact "a sudden, radical and complete change." Which is precisely why the word revolution is problematic, because in most cases, what is sudden, radical or even what is change, can be up for debate.
I also disagree with the idea that the media is careful in its use of the word, after all, are we not still debating the idea that we are living through an "internet revolution"? The fact is that word is appealing because it lends itself to the illusion that events that seem sudden came out of nowhere, while in fact, most events are the result of long processes. It adds drama to the news, but it pays little attention to history that tends to be less exciting and much harder to synthesize in a few sound-bites. I am a historian and the fact that volumes have been written about whether the French, or the Mexican were in fact revolutions, or about why we can speak of an Industrial revolution reminds me that history is made as much of the seemingly sudden and dramatic events that usually make the headlines, as of the slow-moving forces that we don't seem to notice, but that are equally powerful. Using the word revolution without serious qualifications, is equivalent to taking the fast route instead of the scenic route. You may get faster to where you are going, but you will miss a lot of good stuff in your way there.

Feb. 08 2011 01:50 PM

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