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August 17, 2018  |  Friday words #134  |  2411 hit(s)

This week I learned from the internet that in the American system of writing dates (m-d-yy, hence today is 8-17-18), we have nine days in a row of palindromic dates: 8-11-18 through 8-19-18. Ok, so that's not a word thing, but it is interesting in a trivial sort of way.

My new-to-me word this week is another sort of? political one. The term is stochastic terrorism, in broad terms means inciting others in an indirect way to commit acts of violence.

There seem to be three components. The terrorism part is easy: inciting violence. A non-explicit part of the term is there is an incitement, but it can be veiled and could have plausible deniability. ("I didn't tell anyone to do anything!") And the stochastic part pertains to an element of randomness: the person using stochastic terrorism isn't inciting a specific person to do a specific deed. Instead, they're spreading a message of violence, hoping that someone will pick up the message and do the deed. As one article put it, "In effect, it is scattering hundreds or thousands of seeds, knowing that only a vanishingly small percentage will take root."

An example might be when a politician uses a term like Second Amendment solution. In the US, any reference to Second Amendment is a reference to guns, so a "solution" involving the Second Amendment can be heard by some as an invitation to shoot someone. Along those lines, conspiracy theorist Alex Jones recently posted a video urging his followers to "get their battle rifles ready," with cites like "now it’s time to act on the enemy before they do a false flag." After this got him temporarily suspended from Twitter, Jones protested "I did not threaten the MSM with battle rifles!"

Leaving aside for a moment the difficulties of the modern age, we could turn to a famous incident in English history. In the 12th century, Henry II was feuding with Thomas Becket, then the archbishop of Canterbury, who had excommunicated some bishops who were well disposed toward Henry. "Will no one rid of me of this turbulent priest?" Henry is reputed to have uttered. (Or some version like that.) Hearing this, four knights attempted to kidnap Becket and ended up killing him. Was this stochastic terrorism? Reader, you decide.

On the word-origins front, this week's word is another one that I've stared at for decades without thinking about much: swashbuckler. How does one buckle a swash (or swash a buckle)? Well, a buckler is a small shield. Swash is a verb that has various related meanings, such as "to dash or cast violently" and "to spill or splash water." So a swashbuckler was originally someone who dashed their sword against a shield—their own or their opponent's. From this noisy sense we got the metaphoric one of someone who swaggers or who's an adventurer. Both the literal and metaphoric senses go back to the 1500s. It's always good to see via old vocabulary that people not only acted the same as they do now, but others recognized the need for words to describe these behaviors.

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