Opinion » Editorial

What’s in a Word?

"Reform," "liberal," "progressive," "moderate." Who knows?



We have been thinking a lot recently about the fashions in language and how the meanings of certain words have evolved to accommodate changes in outlook.

Take the word "reform," for example, which means whatever the user of it wants it to mean. Fair enough, since, strictly speaking, the term is neutral. To re-form means to "construct again," to significantly alter the nature or function of something, and, in practice, that can be for good or ill, although the word is rarely, if ever, used in that latter, pejorative sense.

When the British parliament imposed a "New Poor Law" in 1834, for example, it was presented as a "reform," but what it entailed was a fairly Draconian system whereby the impoverished of the realm were deprived of independently administered doles and were herded into workhouses that were little more than prisons. The aim was to reduce taxes — or rates, as the British say — for the well-to-do. What that reform netted for the unfortunates who had to inhabit the workhouses is fairly well chronicled in Dickens' Oliver Twist.

Similarly, we find ourselves wondering about the much-ballyhooed educational "reforms" of the Haslam administration in Nashville. We're not certain now, and weren't certain when they were first proposed and enacted, about the positive effect of tighter tenure requirements for teachers, for example, recalling that the concept of tenure came into being in the first place as a "reform" meant to ensure the freedom of educators from undue pressures. Nor are we certain that the new panoply of state-operated super-districts, for failing schools and achieving schools alike, is anything more, ultimately, than a layer of bureaucracy that operates at too great a distance from the institutions and local populations these new hierarchies are set up to serve. We know for sure that the internal legislative rivalries that — as of this writing — seem to have doomed, at least temporarily, a voucher system whereby public money would end up being channeled into private hands, have resulted in nothing less than a reprieve for a theory of public education that we still favor.

And what is tax reform? Was it the attempted creation of a state income tax during the administration of former governor Don Sundquist? It was fashionable for the legislators who backed that concept to use the term "tax reform" as a euphemism for their (ultimately unsuccessful) efforts to achieve a less regressive system of taxation. Or is it tax reform when conservative spokespersons propose versions of a flat tax that manifestly work in favor of the economically well-off? Same lingo, different direction.

At least the word "reform" is one that probably won't go out of fashion the way "liberal" did at one point, when it was the harshest of insults the likes of Limbaugh, Hannity, et al could utter. Republicans, even those who believe in the purposes of government, still run from the word in horror, eschewing even its harmless second cousin, "moderate." Now, as pundits such as Paul Krugman and a few others are reclaiming the moniker and proudly touting themselves as liberals, Democrats who tend toward caution will go out on a limb and call themselves "progressive," which, like "reform," seems safe enough.

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