Expediency discernment

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According to recent reports out of Iran, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani has resigned as chairman of an entity whose full name is given in English as the "Expediency Discernment Council of the System", or the "Expediency Council" for short.

The Wikipedia entry says that the organization "was originally set up to resolve differences or conflicts between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians, but 'its true power lies more in its advisory role to the Supreme Leader.'" But this post is not about the nature of the organization or the meaning of Rafsanjani's reported resignation, but rather about the English name, which I found bizarre.

For the basic adjective expedient, the OED gives one non-obsolete gloss that is neutral or positive: "Conducive to advantage in general, or to a definite purpose; fit, proper, or suitable to the circumstances of the case"; and another sense that is decidedly negative in tone: "In depreciative sense, ‘useful’ or ‘politic’ as opposed to ‘just’ or ‘right’."

The American Heritage Dictionary gives the neutral gloss "Appropriate to a purpose", and the negatively-flavored ones "1. Serving to promote one's interest … 2. Based on or marked by a concern for self-interest rather than principle; self-interested".

Merriam-Webster's Online Dictionary gives "suitable for achieving a particular end in a given circumstance", and " characterized by concern with what is opportune; especially: governed by self-interest".

Encarta gives "1. appropriate: appropriate, advisable, or useful in a situation that requires action" and "2. advantageous: advantageous for practical rather than moral reasons. She changed her vote because it was expedient for her to do so."

The meanings for expediency carry similarly negative connotations, either by reference to expedient or more directly — thus Encarta's first sense is "1. use of short-term effective methods: the use of methods that bring the most immediate benefits, based on practical rather than moral considerations". And the OED, after "The quality or state of being expedient; suitability to the circumstances or conditions of the case …", gives us "The consideration of what is expedient, as a motive or rule of action; ‘policy’, prudential considerations as distinguished from those of morality or justice. In mod. use often in a bad sense, the consideration of what is merely politic (esp. with regard to self-interest) to the neglect of what is just or right."

This may be a fair characterization of what the Expediency Discernment Council is supposed to discern, but politicians are generally more circumspect about how they name their activities. And I would be very surprised if this entity's Persian name (مجمع تشخیص مصلحت نظام) involved a word with such negative connotations — can a Persian speaker offer us a judgment?

So I wonder — was this choice (which seems to be the official one) an innocent mistake of translation, made (back in 1988?) by someone who didn't read the full English dictionary entry, and wasn't well enough attuned to the connotations of English words to see the problem? Or was it a subtle act of political criticism?

[To supplement the dictionaries, a bit of literary evidence. Hugh MacDiarmid, "King Over Himself":

18 Here there was no justice, or love of justice, he thought,
19 No reality or love of reality.
20 Here there was only expediency and love of expediency.
21 Here all was venal, and to feign worth
22 Was better than to possess it.

Or Robert Montgomery, "The Sensuality of the Age":

34 ... while Principle expires,
35 And base Expediency's polluted breath
36 Falls, like a mildew, over minds and men.

Or Francis William Newman, "Political Expediency":

50 To the public they talk plausibly of Justice and Right and Treaty,
51 But in their dark councils crooked Expediency domineers,
52 A topic rightful in its place, but not rightful against Justice.

I'm not suggesting that expediency always has a negative connotation -- there are many circumstances where it can be neutral or even positive. But the negative associations seem to me to be consistent enough, especially when a possible opposition with principle or justice is implicit, that I would be very surprised to see an "Expediency Council" among contemporary native speakers of English, other than a cynical joke. ]

[Update: the nature of the name is explained in the comment by SG below, which I'm repeating here.

I am faculty member at a university in the United States and a native Farsi speaker. A linguist colleague shared this post with me and asked whether I could contribute to this discussion. I will offer the translation of each word in the entity's Persian name and will leave it to the contributors to discern what the entity's functions may include or what the accurate translation might be.

As the original post notes, the entity's Persian name is مجمع تشخیص مصلحت نظام.

First thing is first: nothing in any of the four words resembles anything close to the word "expedient."

As for the translation of each word:

مجمع (pronounced Majma'a) means "assembly" or "council."

تشخیص (pronounced Tash-khees), means "discernment" or "analysis."

مصلحت (pronounced Maslahat), means "interest."

نظام (pronounced Nezam), means "order" or "system."

So, perhaps, a better translation (than "The Expediency Discernment Council of the System") would be "The Council for Discerning the System's Interest."

I also note that this page defines maslahat as "public welfare"; or combining the two ideas, perhaps "public interest" would be better. This makes perfect sense, given the council's original purpose "to resolve differences or conflicts between the Majlis and the Council of Guardians". ]



32 Comments

  1. Ethan Glasser-Camp said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 5:15 pm

    Just a quick note that I am a native of New York City and I find "expedient" to be approximately the same "color" as "convenient", and has a meaning not covered by these glosses of something like "fast". (I see that meaning is marked "obsolete", but it's what I think of first).

  2. James Kabala said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    I agree; I recognize the "practical rather than moral" meaning as one I know, but I also think of it as meaning "within the limits of the possible" – e.g., "Would it be expedient for the university to build a new student center, or must it refrain due to the budget considerations?"

    I think that's because the antonym "inexpedient" simply means "inadvisable" and carries no connotation of moral courage. No one would ever say that "It was inexpedient for Thomas More to refuse the Oath of Supremacy," even though they might say those who did take the oath were acting expediently.

  3. Max Holder said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 5:59 pm

    I'd have to agree with Ethan here. "Expedient" doesn't have a negative connotation to me, instead it is more like accelerated. I suppose it could have a negative connotation if it was too accelerated… Perhaps I'm drawing too much from similar words like expedite or even from Expedia. :P

    It seems all my dictionaries agree with you, except for Wiktionary, which defines it as "Simple, easy, or quick; convenient." :
    http://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/expedient

  4. Spectre-7 said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 6:01 pm

    Odd. I'm from California, and my first blush response to the word is also fast, perhaps with a hint of efficiently or without any unnecessary delay.

    I wonder if that might be a somewhat common misinterpretation, caused by its connection to the word expedite, which I believe does carry the above meanings, or maybe in part by the resemblance of the middle syllable to the word speed. *shrug*

  5. Bloix said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 6:12 pm

    Among lawyers like myself, "expedient" doesn't have a negative connotation – at least, it's generally not used that way. It means "practical, prompt, efficient, effective." Perhaps we're influenced by the "necessary and expedient" of the Constitution which gives the President the power to "recommend" to Congress "such Measures as he shall judge necessary and expedient."

    The judicial decision below (from 1990) is instructive- the issue there is whether a thief was in a "position of trust" with the victims of his crime (if he was, he's subject to a longer sentence). The test is whether the victim had an "expedient" way to dedect any criminal activity. For example, there's an "expedient" way to tell if a bank teller or cashier is stealing – you reconcile the amount in the till with the receipts on a daily basis. So that's not a "position of trust."

    http://bulk.resource.org/courts.gov/c/F2/915/915.F2d.502.89-50045.html

  6. Dan T. said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 6:47 pm

    What connotations did the creators of the Expedia website intend?

    [(myl) I can't speak for them, obviously, but I always associated the brand with expedite rather than expedient.]

  7. KCinDC said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

    I don't find "expedient" that negative either, but I still think "Expediency Discernment Council of the System" is a horrible translation of something. The word "Expediency" is only one of the problems. The words "Discernment" and "System" are about as bad.

  8. MA said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 9:28 pm

    I am not a Persian but an Arabic speaker. The Persian name of this council, however, has many Arabic borrowings to make it more or less understandable to an Arabic speaker.

    It could be roughly translated as (The council for discerning or diagnosing the “Interest/self-interest” of the “governing” system). The key word here is مصلحت which in Arabic at least could be rendered as interest/s or self-interest/s. Maybe “interest” was perceived as a negative word and thus avoided in translation.

  9. Joe Fineman said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

    The pejorative sense goes back quite a way; I immediately thought of (& the OED cites) Goldsmith's "too fond of the right to pursue the expedient" (1774).

  10. tablogloid said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 9:35 pm

    I have always felt a twinge of negativity from the word
    "expedient". It serves up Machiavellian feelings of callous decisions with no regard for their effects other than their goals. In other words,
    "The end justifies the means.".

  11. SG said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

    I am faculty member at a university in the United States and a native Farsi speaker. A linguist colleague shared this post with me and asked whether I could contribute to this discussion. I will offer the translation of each word in the entity's Persian name and will leave it to the contributors to discern what the entity's functions may include or what the accurate translation might be.

    As the original post notes, the entity's Persian name is مجمع تشخیص مصلحت نظام.

    First thing is first: nothing in any of the four words resembles anything close to the word "expedient."

    As for the translation of each word:

    مجمع (pronounced Majma'a) means "assembly" or "council."

    تشخیص (pronounced Tash-khees), means "discernment" or "analysis."

    مصلحت (pronounced Maslahat), means "interest."

    نظام (pronounced Nezam), means "order" or "system."

    So, perhaps, a better translation (than "The Expediency Discernment Council of the System") would be "The Council for Discerning the System's Interest."

    Hope this helps.

  12. dr pepper said,

    June 14, 2009 @ 11:16 pm

    Simpler suggestion: perhaps the persian translators really meant to say "expedite" all along.

  13. Kenny V said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 1:07 am

    I agree completely with the first poster; I had never realized there was a negative connotation associated with the word. To me it just means something that advances a goal or speeds up a process.

  14. Robert said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 2:23 am

    Going from the word by word translation above, 'nezam' in this context would be the Islamic Revolution or Iranian State, while 'maslahat' would be 'the good of', or similar. Since in English, council and its synonyms can quite often be omitted from the names of committees, and their attitude to their subject matter can generally be assumed to default to positive, a free translation of the name would be something like 'Monitors of the legacy of the revolution' or just 'Iranian security council'., both of which leave part of the descriptioni implied rather than stated.

  15. Nick Barnes said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 5:54 am

    It's just plain-speaking. Every country has more-or-less formal mechanisms for identifying expedient – in the sense of practical-rather-than-right – courses of action. In most countries it's called the "National Security Council" or the "Security Advisory Board", or the "Civil Contingencies Committee" or something. The Iranian state calls it what it is: the council for discerning expediency.

    [(myl) But they don't, actually -- as the comment from SG makes clear, this is just a mistranslation of the council's Persian name, in which the corresponding word maslahat, meaning something like "public interest" or "public welfare" has (as I understand it) no connotation of what is practical as opposed to what is just or moral. ]

    What arm of *your* state decides (for instance) not to prosecute your ex-leaders for their war crimes?

    [(myl) If you mean (for example) the firebombing of Dresden, I guess that in the U.S. it was the Justice Department. I don't know what the agency responsible for such decisions in the U.K. is. Seriously, parading of irrelevant political prejudices aside, the point is that governments don't in general use names like "Department of Hypocrisy Oversight" or "Council of Expediency Discernment", even though all governments rely to some extent on hypocrisy and expediency. ]

  16. hsgudnason said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 6:57 am

    Had I seen the various definitions of expediency and been asked to suggest the word they defined (kind of a Zen dictionary game), I might have come up with "ad hoc," which seems like a perfectly normal designation for a type of government committee. Perhaps the committee's original brief was regarded as a short-term affair, and then grew.

  17. J. W. Brewer said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 7:07 am

    I was reminded of the non-pejorative usage in 1 Cor. 6:12 (KJV): "All things are lawful unto me, but all things are not expedient," with "expedient" having a sense perhaps within shouting distance of an adjectival form of "maslahat." Is it possible that "expediency" actually has a slightly different semantic range in English than "expedient," such that it's even harder to get the non-pejorative sense out of the former? I suppose I would find it a bit odd-seeming if a 17th century marginal note glossed that passage as "Sainct Paul commendeth Expediencie."

  18. Nick Barnes said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 11:45 am

    SG specifically suggests "the System's Interest", not "public interest". Similar notions are too-often the subject of legal weasel words in the UK (for instance, whether the interests of the government of the day constitute a "national interest" or even a question of "national security"), and for that matter in the US.
    I suspect that no non-Iranian is competent to speculate on the broader connotations of this particular Farsi word – or rather of the whole expression – or indeed whether (for instance) the interests of the System would have been considered morally paramount by the people who gave the council its name. Certainly I am not.
    There are definitely coherent frameworks in which the pragmatic interests of a System have moral primacy. As I learned at school, "the Party in the last analysis is always right, because the Party is the single historical instrument given to the proletariat for the solution of its fundamental problems". And very many people around the world find themselves in such a camp when the chips are down, which was the point of my "ex-leaders" comment. All of our societies have more-or-less formal systems for maintaining stability. I applaud the Iranians for choosing such a clear name for their own such system.
    I'm not sure what "irrelevant political prejudices" you discerned in my earlier comment.

  19. SG said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 12:33 pm

    If I may, I would have to respectfully disagree with peyvand.com's definition of the word "maslahat" as "public welfare," a source used in the original post.

    Maslahat is one word. While it MAY be translated into "welfare" ("interest" is still a much purer, more accurate translation), nothing in the word denotes "public."

    [(myl) Thanks! One more question: does mashalat often imply an opposition between between "interest" and "morality" or "justice", or is are its associations generally neutral (or even positive)? ]

  20. Martin said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    I suspect some commenters above are conflating 'expedient' with 'expeditious'.

  21. SG said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    Response to MYL ("[(myl) Thanks! One more question: does mashalat often imply an opposition between between "interest" and "morality" or "justice", or is are its associations generally neutral (or even positive)? "]

    This is a tough question. Let me put the usage of the word in some context: the word can be used in everyday conversation between friends and family. One can ask a friend: "what do you think is 'mashalat?'" In this question, the friend is asking "what do think the best thing to do is?" For some (an objectivist, for instance), the best thing to do would be what would do most for self-interest. For others, it might be what is "right" or "moral" or "just."

    [(myl) Thanks again! Can you also put the usage of nezam in context for us? Does it mean "system of government", at least in this case? Is there a Persian equivalent of what I understand is a form of Arabic greeting, at least in Egypt: "eh en-nezam, meaning 'what is the system?' used to signify 'How is it going?' or 'What are we going to do?'". ]

  22. Mark Liberman said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 1:35 pm

    In a comment on another post, Troy S. wrote:

    To weigh in as Persianist, I'd have to say the the word مصلحت is being translated as "expediency" although not in the more common sense of haste or exigency but rather:
    "The quality or state of being suited to the end in view : suitability, fitness"
    -from Merriam Webster online m-w.com
    (Curiously enough, though you and I regard it as the more common one, the same entry lists the sense of haste as being obsolete!)
    I agree, it's an odd translation of مصلحت maybe, Advisability Council would be a better translation, but it's institutionalized now.

  23. SG said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 2:09 pm

    Nezam's roots are Arabic. The word is derived from the word "nazm." Nazm means orderliness.

    In the context of this discussion, I do think that the word probably means system of government. However, the word Nezam is generally used to denote something military-related. The following are some examples and usages in daily language:

    "Nezam vazife:" Military service (vazife means responsibility).

    "Nezami:" a member of the military.

    "Hokoomat Nezami:" Martial Law (hokoomat means government.)

    A non-military-related usage of the word is "nezam pezeshki," which is the Medical Council in Iran partially responsible for licensing and registering physicians. (Pezeshk means physician.) Come to think of it, a more accurate translation of Nezam Pezeshki (rather than Medical Council) would likely be "The Order of Physicians.")

  24. Boris said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 2:30 pm

    My first encounter with the word "Expedient" was upon first hearing it on the highway advisory radio of the New Jersey Turnpike Authority many years ago. When there are no advisories they play general purpose recordings, one of which advises to tune in and, if there is congestion, the will "assist with finding a more expedient route". So, I have also always thought that "fast" was the intended meaning. Certainly, nothing negative.

  25. language hat said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 2:37 pm

    For what it's worth, the translations of مصلحت (maslahat) in Haim's Persian-English Dictionary are 1) Policy. 2) Best thing to do. 3) Interest [usu. in the pl.]. 4) Good intentions. 5) Affair. [Used as an adj.] Advisable; expedient.

    (The plural, which I can't seem to insert before the bracket in 3 without screwing up the formatting, is مصالح)

  26. Cameron said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 3:03 pm

    This reminds me of another Iranian institution, and the translation of its name: the institution referred to in English as the Foundation of The Oppressed and Disabled. This name translates the Persian Bonyade Mostaz'afeen va Janbazan. The latter part of the name (va Janbazan) was added some time after the original name was coined. This name was given to the foundation after the 1979 revolution – it was originally called The Pahlavi Foundation. The word mostaz'afeen was a weird word at the time to secular Iranian intellectuals – though they could certainly figure out what it meant. This was a new borrowing from Arabic, indicative of the influence of the clerics on Iranian politics. Mostaz'afeen literally means "those who have been made weak" – the work za'eef, meaning weak or feeble, is common in Persian and comes from the same Arabic root. There was some question as to how to render it in English. The officials in charge ultimately settled on "oppressed", which is fine. But just a few years later American political culture would itself generate a neologism that's a perfect fit as a translation for mostaz'afeen. If they were to retranslate the name now it should be Foundation for the Disempowered.

  27. Lane said,

    June 15, 2009 @ 5:30 pm

    Interestingly, all four words are Arabic, which is handy since I don't speak Farsi. This whole burst of news has shown me how much "Farsi" I really know: Enqilab Square, I knew, meant "Revolution Square", since Inqilab means Revolution in Arabic; etc. etc. Truly, it seems that the high levels of Farsi vocabulary are more chock-a-block with Arabic than I realized.

  28. Asher said,

    June 16, 2009 @ 8:09 am

    Don't know if anyone else who's commented on their impression of the semantics of "expedient" has been a New Zealander, but if it makes any difference I am – and my immediate reaction to it is to interpret it as being fairly synonymous with "appropriate", denoting the best course of action.

    By way of example (a little awkward, but…):

    "Do you think that calling him this late would be expedient?"

    I don't particularly have any denotations of morality or justice here – but one would hardly replace "expedient" in the example above with "moral" or "just", non?

    I don't have the "fast" meaning – but maybe I just haven't heard it in such a context as to confer that meaning to my lexicon.

  29. Etl World News | EXPEDIENCY. said,

    July 14, 2009 @ 12:03 am

    [...] without discussing the actual meaning of the original? As it happens, Language Log had a whole post about this, and it turns out that maslehat, or more accurately maslahat, means [...]

  30. Linklog: New books vs good books, secondhand sales technique, obscure words and more said,

    March 13, 2011 @ 9:39 am

    [...] – Why Iran's official translators should have paid more attention to Hugh MacDiarmid. [...]

  31. Ed Plaisance said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 1:12 pm

    This is an excerpt from Jurzman'a article on peyvand.com:

    The Islamic Republic even was forced to acknowledge the failure of Islamic governance, one of its primary reasons for existence, with the formation of the Council for the Discernment of the Expediency of the System, more commonly known as the Expediency Council. The purpose of the Council, as stipulated in a constitutional amendment in 1989, is to overrule the Guardian Council when necessary for the interests of the state. Since the Guardian Council's constitutional role is to assess the Islamic propriety of parliamentary legislation, the Expediency Council's oversight of the Guardian Council means that judgments about Islam no longer have the final word. Expediency -maslahat, in Persian, meaning public welfare – has the final word. In Asghar Schirazi's account of the constitution of the Islamic Republic, this amendment was not the first time that the principle of public interest was permitted to trump acknowledged Islamic principles, but it was the first time that this move had been announced and permanently institutionalized. Khomeini prepared Iranians for the change in a famous open letter of 1988 that identified the interests of the Iranian state as the primary obligation of Islamic faith, above such secondary obligations as prayer, fasting, and pilgrimage. The Islamic Republic has survived this official downgrading of its commitment to Islamic principles.

    I do Persian-English translation and feel the struggle in finding the right word(s) here.

    While I think I would agree with another poster's comment on "interest" being better than "welfare", overall Kurzman's presentation of the context leads me to conclude that "expediency" is still the best word in English…that is, the Council was established to find solutions, when necessary, expedient to/for the Islamic Republic.

  32. Ed Plaisance said,

    June 11, 2013 @ 1:14 pm

    Typo occurred in my comment: It is "Kurzman's" not "Jurzman'a"

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