Thursday, 2002 September 12, 16:19 — humanities

the tragedy of sloppy language quotes Charles Krauthammer:

Whenever I hear Sept. 11 referred to as just a tragedy, I wince. The San Francisco earthquake was a tragedy. The Johnstown flood was a tragedy. Hurricane Andrew was a tragedy. A tragedy is an act of God. Sept. 11 was no act of God. It was an act of man. An act of war.

miller adds:

Yes, in common parlance, the word “tragedy” has come to mean “a really bad thing.” For speechwriters, reporters and the man on the street, it is simply a shorthand way of describing the more properly phrased, “terrorist attacks,” “terrorist act of mass murder,” “terrorist conspiracy that took the lives of our fellow citizens.” But it’s a sloppy shorthand that prevents more disciplined thinking – as represented by Krauthamer’s clear-headed column. It just gets my goat.

Classically, a tragedy is a kind of drama, in which a hero is brought down by his own character flaw (such as pride or jealousy). I don’t insist that the word be reserved for events that fit the Greek dramatic form, but a tragedy ought to be a story that contains a moral lesson. An act of god is not tragedy; nor is a common murder.

A few months ago, on seeing the newspaper headline Search ends in tragedy, my first thought was: did the search itself cause someone’s death? No, it’s merely that the missing child was found dead. A more accurate (and shorter) headline would be Search ends in sorrow.

The deaths at Jonestown resulted from the followers’ abdication of personal sovereignty; that’s tragic. The sinking of the Titanic, being an act of god, was not itself tragic; but most of the deaths were preventable, and therefore tragic.

Subsidizing autocratic states, and driving their opposition into radical Islam, was a tragic blunder.

(Ultimately, I’m told, tragedy (trag-oidia) is Greek for ‘goat song’; I bring that up only to ask whether Miller had that obscure pun in mind.)

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