Using the word terrorist clouds important issues

English is a malleable language. By speaking it, we smash and mold its words, often giving them new meanings. When this occurs, adjustments in usage must follow.

Following the attack on satirical French magazine Charlie Hebdo, BBC Arabic has instructed its writers to avoid the word terrorist when describing the event or events like it. The publication has called the word loaded and instead has encouraged its writers to use more specific language.

Terrorist is a loaded term, and this weight clouds conversations and descriptions of violent attacks. Moving away from the word can only bring clarity.

“The word ‘terrorist’ has become commonly associated with the Middle East,” said Instructor of English Caroline McAlister. “It’s become sort of a code word for Islam and the Middle East.”

Examples of the close relationship appear almost everywhere. Turn on the TV, watch a few minutes of news on almost any channel, wait for the anchor to use the word terrorist and see if the attack or group in question is not Middle Eastern in origin.

“I think (terrorist) might be overused a little,” said senior Ben Stevenson. “I think it could put down a group that may not be terrorist in nature.”

Does calling a violent extremist a terrorist directly insult anyone of the same nationality? Probably not. But, does constantly calling people of one nationality terrorists create prejudice? Much more likely.

The relationship between Middle Eastern violence and the word terrorist has reached such a high level it seems out of the ordinary to see the word elsewhere.

“It’s at the point where when the news discusses domestic terrorism, it must be qualified,” said McAlister. “I think that shows how it has taken on that permutation.”

Some would argue that using terrorist with a qualifier this way just adds specificity. They would say terrorist means exactly what it should, but that there is no need for change.

“I think ‘terrorist’ is a clear definition of what these people do,” said Assistant Professor of Political Science Robert Duncan. “The word means it’s your intention to intimidate or coerce the government or a segment of a population using acts of violence. If the shoe fits, wear it.”

Though the technical definition most definitely applies to attacks like that on Charlie Hebdo, the term has taken on an extra definition in the modern media. BBC Arabic’s editors realized this and, because of it, made their move away from the term.

“Terrorism is such a loaded word,” said Tarik Kafala in an interview with U.K. newspaper The Independent. “We know what political violence is, we know what murder, bombings and shootings are and we describe them. That’s much more revealing, we believe, than using a word like terrorist which people will see as value-laden.”

Using specific descriptions as opposed to loaded buzz words offers a clearer picture of events. The primary goal of journalism is to represent facts in the most up front way possible, and BBC Arabic has a taken a great step toward that goal.