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From Coby Lubliner:

A few years ago, when I heard someone introduced on the radio as a "domestic-violence advocate," I assumed that it was a slip-up associated with the informality of radio, and what was meant was something like an advocate for victims of domestic violence, which was what they turned out to be.

But this morning, in an article by the esteemed (and very literate) literary critic Laura Miller ("'50 Shades': Not actually the end of civilization as we know it, guys", Slate 2/12/2015), I read the following:

In the U.K., an advocate of domestic violence argued that the books are a veritable “instruction manual for an abusive individual to sexually torture a vulnerable young woman.”

I have not seen any dictionary entry showing "advocate of" meaning the opposite of what seems to mean. Are you familiar with this usage?

The short answer to Coby's question is "No, this is new to me." But interpreting his question in a less personal sense (as it was no doubt intended), there are several different issues here:

  • How widely is "X advocate" used to mean "someone who works to help victims of X" rather than "someone who works to promote X"?
  • How widely is "advocate of X" used in the same way?
  • How long has this been going on?

I don't have time this afternoon to research these questions thoroughly, so I'll open the floor to discussion from commenters.

Just a few notes to start things off:

First, "domestic violence advocate" has become a standard job title over the past few decades:

Second, the OED tells us that advocate has been used since 1450 or so to mean "A person who pleads for or speaks on behalf of another", whereas the sense "A person who supports, recommends, or speaks in favour of something, esp. a proposal or doctrine" is a century more recent.

And the OED dates to 1977 the specific sense "A person who is appointed to advise on and protect the rights, needs, etc., of a vulnerable adult or child, and act as his or her representative, esp. in a legal or official context. Freq. as the second element in compounds, esp. in child advocate, victim advocate."

So the compound innovation is roughly from "domestic violence victim advocate" to "domestic violence advocate" — has this happened with other phrases of the form "X victim advocate"? A few fairly common examples include "nursing home abuse advocate", "sexual abuse advocate", "child abuse advocate".

And the other question is the history and progress of the phrasing "advocate of X" meaning "advocate for (victims of) X".



  1. S Frankel said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 10:53 am

    Google shows a few tens of thousands of hits for "AIDS advocate" and "HIV advocate," and that usage goes back to the 1980s. Far fewer results for "polio advocate," "malaria advocate," or "ebola advocate." In a sign of progress, there are no hits for "smallpox advocate."

    There aren't any, either, for "gun violence advocate" that aren't prefixed with "anti-." Why does "gun violence advocate" sound silly but the disease constructions don't?

  2. Brett said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 10:54 am

    I still find "domestic violence advocate" (and similar constructions) rather awkward. I know that it can be sensibly parsed with the older definition of advocate, but I don't think everyone who uses it is thinking of that definition. My thinking was definitely influenced by encountering terms like "advocate of/for domestic violence." I don't know if I've ever encountered that specific example, but I've definitely heard "advocate of terrorism," meaning somebody who spoke for victims of attacks. There have been others as well, but that's the only one I recall specifically. The form with "for" seems to be more common—and less objectionable, since it can be accommodated by the older definition of "advocate" (although it's a stretch)—but the "of" form, which does not seem to have any reasonable parsing, is out there too.

  3. Anthony said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 11:03 am

    A few years ago I saw related headlines in the two major Chicago newspapers, one referring to "AIDS Funding" and the other to "Anti-AIDS Funding." The latter seemed unnecessarily precise, since furthering what is clearly harmful is irrational. If some do not count domestic violence as harmful the case becomes less clear: "anti-" in such a connection might be needed to avoid ambiguity.

  4. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 11:06 am

    Just for one parallel, "cancer advocate" now seems to be quite widely/standardly used to mean "advocate for patients suffering from cancer" (but recent – oldest reliably dated usage I was able to find in a few minutes playing with google books was 1994 and it doesn't seem to get common until maybe a decade ago) but the first couple pages of general google results for "advocate of cancer" do not provide any evidence that that phrase would be synonymous, because they are invariably incomplete (so the actual phrases are "advocate of cancer research" and things like that). That is consistent with my own reaction to Prof. Lubliner's examples, where I found "domestic violence advocate" transparent and unremarkable but "advocate of domestic violence" downright weird, such that my default assumption was that it was an error. (For example, an early draft could have had "advocate of domestic violence prevention" or "awareness" or some such word which got inadvertently edited out.)

  5. mollymooly said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 11:17 am

    There may be some confusion between "advocate" and "activist", which share a meter and other phonetic details and are interchangeable in many such contexts.

    I fancy I have seen concise lists of patron saints of X which rely on readers' common sense to distinguish those who favour X from those who protect against X.

  6. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 11:23 am

    A possible parallel might be the inconsistency of compounds of the form "X insurance." There are things like "fire insurance" or "disability insurance" where the first word of the compound is the peril insured against and other things like "life insurance" or "auto insurance" where the first word of the compound is the thing the peril(s) insured against would damage. Somehow people manage to understand all of these, either because of contextual clues (including that the "other" reading would be irrational) or because they are learned as idioms.

    For one of S. Frankel's queries, I wonder if the existence of the presumably pre-existing stock phrase "gun control advocate" blocks "gun violence advocate"? (Obviously there are people who think the policies typically meant by "gun control" are not the optimal way to prevent or reduce crimes committed with firearms, but they may just need to come up with their own idiomatic self-description, since it would be especially imprudent for them to embrace "gun violence advocate.")

    Another possible explanation for things like "domestic violence advocate" is the emergence of touchy terminological debates about whether "victim" is an appropriate word for the people the advocate is advocating for or whether e.g. "survivor" is more appropriate. (And thanks to the internet, such terminological debates tend not to be about how word A is not as optimal as word B all things considered but about how Anyone Who Uses Word A Is a Horrible Insensitive Person.) Using a more elliptical phrase sidesteps that problem. I would personally still feel a bit concerned about sending my daughters to a college that brings "paid professional rape advocates" to campus, even though that is apparently actually a thing:

  7. Kelly O. said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 11:26 am

    This reminds me of when I'm checking out in the grocery store and they ask me if I want to donate a dollar to breast cancer.

  8. John F said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 11:29 am

    Where I work, you can change your working pattern so that you can do condensed working, e.g. 9-day fortnights or four-day weeks, so long as your total number of work hours stays at the standard.

    People then set their out-of-office email to say that they are on their 'condensed working day'.

  9. Robot Therapist said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 11:34 am

    I wonder if "advocate" is getting a new wider meaning of "someone who talks about". So "advocate of domestic violence" is just someone who talks about DV.

  10. cameron said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 12:28 pm

    Back in the early 90s, when Earvin "Magic" Johnson was diagnosed as HIV positive, he announced that he intended to act as "a spokesman for the virus".

  11. Miles said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 12:39 pm

    Given that there are people who are in favour of terrorism (they are called terrorists or terrorist supporters), it seems surprising that advocates of terrorism is widely used, because it could be ambiguous. If I read the quote "I am an advocate of terrorism", I would be expecting it to be coming from someone nasty not nice!

  12. Phil Woodford said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 12:41 pm

    I don't think this has much to do with the word 'advocate' per se. It is an issue of the jargon and shorthand surrounding job titles. In the UK, I can find examples of charitable and government organizations employing people as 'Head of Domestic Violence'. I don't suppose they're responsible for organizing and overseeing the abuse.

  13. Jonathan said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 1:13 pm

    I suspect that the term advocate can be used appropriately following an evil is only when the evil itself has no advocates. There are surely "gun advocates" so people against guns are difficult to call "gun violence advocates." (Gun advocates might be against violence, but that's a harder position to parse.) That's why the other side are called "anti-gun advocates." Similarly, there can be "smoking advocates," making defenders of smoking's victims something like "anti-smoking advocates." Domestic violence and AIDS? Not so much, allowing he the term 'advocate" to be used with an assumed default.

  14. LMorland said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 1:40 pm

    I haven't been aware of this usage either, and it's something that I would definitely notice.

    However, I'm chiming in because I've known Laura Miller since she was an undergraduate in the English Department at U.C. Berkeley. (She was my stepson's girlfriend at the time.) She still lives in the Bay Area, as far as I know.

    So if you're tracing the geographical spread of this usage, the West Coast may be a factor to consider.

  15. gribley said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 2:57 pm

    I agree with mollymooly that there is probably some slop here from "activist" to "advocate".

    This is a consistent problem or at least source of mild entertainment in environmental sciences and especially in climate change. Neither Jim Hansen nor Sheldon Whitehouse can be said in any way to be advocates for climate change, as these headlines have them.

    That said, I think this usage has become fairly standard.

  16. SC said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 2:59 pm

    At my public university, for several years, everyone was required to do "Sexual Harassment Training."

  17. Ralph Hickok said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 3:38 pm

    There's a local agency called the Hunger Commission, which has never sounded right to me. Do they commit hunger?

  18. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 3:42 pm

    A preliminary bit of methodologically unrigorous googling suggests that "anti-poverty advocate" may be the majority form by quite a bit but plain old "poverty advocate" (meaning the same thing) is definitely Out There. The margin by which "anti-hunger advocate" is leading "hunger advocate" at first glance is not quite so dramatic. But maybe these usages are in transition so check back in a few years. I did find one webpage describing the exact same individual as both an "anti-poverty advocate" and a "hunger advocate."* As well as a "climate change activist." (Isn't "activist" at least as double-edged as "advocate"? It could without context be read to imply an attitude on the order of "Come on, people. We can't expect the climate to change all by itself if we just remain passive.")

    Am I to infer from silence that no one else is finding very many instances of the "advocate of X" form?

    *Of course there are people in our society who advocate for the desirability of occasional experiences of hunger on a voluntary basis, whether in the form of dieting for health purposes or in the form of fasting as a spiritual exercise. But that apparently doesn't block "hunger advocate" because it is understood to refer to the "bad" (i.e. involuntary and/or chronic) kind of hunger that everyone is presumed to officially be against.

  19. Bob Ladd said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 5:22 pm

    @J. W. Brewer: In German, health insurance is called Krankenversicherung ('sickness insurance'). I'm sure you're right that pragmatics (or world knowledge, or common sense, or whatever) plays an important role in how any of the these phrases are interpreted and used.

    Nevertheless, I agree with several commenters that "advocate of domestic violence" in the meaning apparently intended in the quote in the main post is pretty weird.

  20. Jonathan Mayhew said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 5:24 pm

    Reminds me of Frank O'Hara's "Personal Poem":

    "a lady asks us for a nickel for a terrible
    disease but we don’t give her one we
    don’t like terrible diseases"

  21. AB said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 5:30 pm

    My guess is that "of" was a slip where the intention was "advocate for" – yes, still backwards I know, but I hear this (to me odd) usage a lot – "advocate for global warming", "advocate for child poverty" etc.
    My guess, based on no evidence whatsoever, is that this follows from the mindset of journalists and tv producers, for whom "advocate for[against/of/about] X" = "person who can offer a pithy quote about topic X at short notice".

  22. Robert said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 5:45 pm

    I'm reminded of two of my favourite titles in the old Teach Yourself book series, Alcoholism, and Schizophrenia.

  23. Ben Zimmer said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 6:00 pm

    Back in 2009, Jonathan Lighter noted this example of "advocate for" on the American Dialect Society mailing list:

    2009 Lauren Collins in New Yorker (Sept. 21) 38: "Anyway, I got up, because I had to, and once I got on the airplane I collapsed."…[Cindy] McCain has decided to become an advocate for the disorder.

  24. mgh said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 9:28 pm

    "What should I do for a headache?"
    "Try hitting yourself soundly with a mallet"

  25. Doug said,

    February 13, 2015 @ 10:12 pm

    A related note:

    Some time ago, I read about someone accused of "bias towards the deaf." I was surprised, because I'd interpreted that as "bias in favor of the deaf." I soon learned it was intended to mean "bias against the deaf."

    Now, if I were to read that a Super Bowl referee was accused of "bias towards the Seahawks," I wouldn't know which side he was on.

  26. John Walden said,

    February 14, 2015 @ 4:49 am

    You get a similar effect when both wrongdoers and law enforcers "pursue criminality". Though some of the latter do seem to do it with the first meaning.

    "The pursuit of happiness"?

  27. Andy said,

    February 14, 2015 @ 10:47 am

    It does seem to be a pattern beyond just the word 'advocate.' Does a flu shot contain flu? The Simpsons took advantage of a similar ambiguity:

    Homer: (hands Hibbert a roll of money) There you are, my good man. And while you're at it, throw in one of those polio shots.
    Hibbert: Ooh, yes, sir. (picks up a needle)
    Homer: Uh… anti-polio. (Hibbert picks up a much bigger needle)

  28. Ø said,

    February 14, 2015 @ 12:08 pm

    Ralph, to me the word "commission" has developed enough of a life of its own separate from the word "commit" that "Hunger Commission" sounds okay. And if I experiment with letting etymological considerations make it sound not okay, I have to wonder whether an X Commission is originally a body that commits X, or whether (like a committee) it is a body to which the task of dealing with X has been committed.

  29. Ø said,

    February 14, 2015 @ 12:13 pm

    Speaking of advocacy, some peevers have been known to latch onto the use of the verb "advocate" in the combination "advocate for", calling it a pointless and wordy replacement for the older "advocate".

    I suppose what we have is (1) nominal "advocate for X" where X is a group that needs someone to speak up for them, leading to (2) verbal "advocate for X" where X is as above, spilling over into (3) verbal "advocate for X" where X is now some course of action.

  30. AB said,

    February 14, 2015 @ 12:17 pm

    Does a flu shot contain flu?


  31. Kenneth MacKenzie said,

    February 14, 2015 @ 12:54 pm

    I recently received an email message advertising an Ethnic Violence Salon. I imagine it's where ethnic violence advocates go to unwind.

  32. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    February 14, 2015 @ 1:41 pm

    I am reminded of Monty Python's 'Appeal for Sanity' (which turned out to be an appeal on behalf of [those suffering from] sanity).

    I once said that I had been to a concert in aid of leprosy, which I think was a perfectly intelligible statement, but nevertheless provoked some laughter from those present.

  33. Mr Punch said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 10:24 am

    I agree with those who suggest the usage goes beyond "advocate." A university in my area has a "sexual violence coordinator." The underlying thought appears to be that the phrases cannot be misunderstood because no one favors whatever it is. No ambiguity as with "measles advocate."

  34. Jamie said,

    February 15, 2015 @ 3:36 pm

    On BBC radio this morning, the leader of the Green Party was introduced as "an advocate of global warming".

  35. J.W. Brewer said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 6:50 am

    Related ambiguous usage in the headlines recently: "Ukraine sanctions" to mean "sanctions against Russia (or specific individuals affiliated with Russia) because of its Ukrainian policy," rather than "sanctions against [the] Ukraine and its own leaders/supporters."

  36. Alan Palmer said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 9:57 am

    "Advisor" is a term used in a similar way. In the UK there are "smoking advisors", whose job is to help people give up smoking, not to take it up.

  37. Lane said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 11:45 am

    I suppose the rebranding of the War Department as the Defense Department fits in here, though not fully (since its job was in fact war, if it came to that…)

  38. AndrewS said,

    February 16, 2015 @ 5:00 pm

    "Climate Change advocate" is a particularly interesting instance as there are people I'm aware of who have expressed views that fit the literal interpretation – ie that a warmer global climate would be preferable to the current one.

  39. Keith said,

    February 17, 2015 @ 3:43 pm

    All this discussion of evil, and yet nobody has yet mentioned the Devil's advocate…

  40. J. W. Brewer said,

    February 18, 2015 @ 5:06 pm

    To add to the file on similar turns of phrase, I just saw "campus sexual assault establishment" used to mean something like "the people in charge of promulgating and enforcing a given university's policies related to investigating and resolving allegations of sexual misconduct," although it may have been meant to have a mildly pejorative undertone (the writer's POV being that the current status quo approach to these issues could use some reform).

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