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". ]