The linguistic narcissism of Christopher Hitchens

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Christopher Hitchens, "American Inaction Favors Qaddafi", Slate 3/7/2011:

Our common speech contains numberless verbs with which to describe the infliction of violence or cruelty or brutality on others. It only really contains one common verb that describes the effect of violence or cruelty or brutality on those who, rather than suffering from it, inflict it. That verb is the verb to brutalize. A slaveholder visits servitude on his slaves, lashes them, degrades them, exploits them, and maltreats them. In the process, he himself becomes brutalized. This is a simple distinction to understand and an easy one to observe. In the recent past, idle usage has threatened to erode it. Last week was an especially bad one for those who think the difference worth preserving.

The OED gives three senses for brutalize:

1. an intransitive verb glossed "To live or become like a brute", cited from 1716.

2. a transitive verb glossed "To render brutal or inhuman; to imbue with a brutal nature", cited from 1704.

3. a transitive verb glossed "To treat as a brute, or brutally", cited from 1879.

1879 R. L. Stevenson Trav. with Donkey 15 God forbid‥that I should brutalise this innocent creature.
E. Lynn Linton Autobiogr. Christopher Kirkland I. 274 He would have died outright had he been brutalized in any way.

It's certainly true that recent usage does not favor Hitchens' preference. During the year 2009, the NYT index finds 41 examples of "brutalized". Among these there are no examples of sense 1, and only three examples of sense 2:

Like most other guards and torturers at the prison, Mr. Him Huy was recruited young — easily molded, brutalized and indoctrinated into the paranoia and extremism of this closed world.
Jefferson believed that the monarchy and priesthood left Spanish subjects "immersed in the darkest ignorance, and brutalized by bigotry and superstition."
Most of Styron's Marines are coarsened, deformed or brutalized by that system.

The other 38 are instances of the OED's sense 3, e.g.

During the assault, at least a dozen young men came and went, gawking and jeering as the girl was brutalized.
Having been indoctrinated by Nazi propaganda, they murdered and brutalized Slavs and even more methodically exterminated Jews.
Among the movies he appeared in were "The Incident" (1967), in which he played a passenger brutalized by young thugs on a New York subway train …

During the same year, there are three examples of "brutalizes", all instances of the OED's sense 3:

… the Museveni government arbitrarily arrests and brutalizes civilians with no accountability.
With sheer power and a rugby player's build, the 6-foot-2, 200-pound Tsonga brutalizes opponents, always wearing his emotions on his sleeve.
It is a state that treats its female population as third-class citizens, brutalizes its minority Shiite population, and punishes political and religious dissent with public torture and beheadings.

Thus it's not surprising that Merriam-Webster omits the OED's first sense — which seems obsolete to me —  and gives just two alternatives, of which the second has become the commonest usage:

1 : to make brutal, unfeeling, or inhuman <brutalized by poverty and disease>
2 : to treat brutally <brutalize prisoners of war>

Is this a recent development, as Hitchens suggests? Certainly the balance has shifted, though much of the change apparently occurred before he was born. In the COHA corpus, the texts from 1900 to 1930 have 32 instances of "brutalized", of which 24 (by my classification) mean "made brutal" and 8 mean "treated brutally". The texts from 1990 to 2008 have 33 instances of "brutalized", which I interpret as 4 "made brutal" and 29 "treated brutally".

And this is not entirely an Americanism, though British English may not be quite so far along the same path. The British National Corpus has 12 instances of "brutalized", and four of these are instances of the "treat brutally" sense.

The same general pattern is true of brutalization. During the period 2005-2009, the NYT index finds 22 examples of "brutalization". Of these, two have the meaning that Hitchens prefers:

In her choosing between ruthlessness and defeat, Scarlett O'Hara's brutalization is far more subtle than what happens to soldiers, but no less enduring.
The Cleveland Orchestra — with a refinement bred in the bone, which served beautifully in the long string lines — relied instead on sheer magnificent force to create a sense of indomitability if not brutalization.

The other 20 are sure to have annoyed him, if he noticed them, e.g.:

Look at the climate in impoverished Catholic neighborhoods and the unchecked brutalization of its inhabitants that led to the civil rights movement.
For Mr. Massaquoi, who said he left his home country after surviving torture and brutalization, there is no question that tribunals are the answer.
We can start by recognizing that the systematic subordination and brutalization of women and girls around the world is, in fact, occurring — and that we need to do something about it.

There similarly seems to have been a historical shift — of the 5 examples of "brutalization" in COHA before 1930, all mean "process or fact of being made brutal", while of the three examples since 1980, two mean "brutal treatment".

So Mr. Hitchens wants to outlaw a sense of brutalize and its derivatives that's been around since the late 19th century, and has in the past few decades become the commonest one in formal written style in the U.S., accounting for about 90% of uses. Why? Because he thinks that the majority sense "robs the language of a useful expression":

Dissenting from the Supreme Court majority that had upheld the First Amendment rights of the ghoulish Westboro Baptist Church, Justice Samuel Alito opined that in order to have vigorous public expression, "it is not necessary to allow the brutalization of innocent victims." And on Saturday the New York Times ran a front-page headline over a report from Tripoli: "Qaddafi Brutalizes Foes, Armed or Defenseless."

Alito's hold on English is pitifully weak at the best of times, and his formulation could be construed as meaning that those whose feelings had been outraged were subject to the equivalent of blunt physical force. The Times did not commit this error, and at least preserved some of the relationship between the word and its origins. But of course the result was a half-baked euphemism. Col. Muammar Qaddafi's conduct is far worse than merely brutal—it is homicidal and sadistic and megalomaniac ("firing on unarmed protesters in front of international news media" was cited in the first paragraph) and even if a headline can't convey all that, it can at least try to capture some of it. Observe, then, what happens when the term is misapplied. The error first robs the language of a useful expression and then ends up by gravely understating the revolting reality it seeks to describe.

It's reasonable for Mr. Hitchens to regret the loss of a word-sense that he likes. But for him to conclude that the rest of the world's usage is therefore an "error" is a lovely example of linguistic narcissism.

His conclusion? The tide, of course, must retreat at his command:

The other possible meaning of the verb to brutalize is that you may succeed, at length, in making others into brutes. Russian serfdom was sometimes depicted in this way, as a cruel system that had the effect of reducing humans to the status of beasts. Again, that cannot conceivably be the intention in either of the above cases. It is important, then, to hang on to the original intent (take note, Justice Alito) of the expression and to the more accurate and discriminating choice of language it permits us.

[Tip of the hat to Christopher Wlach]


  1. Arnold Zwicky said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 7:04 pm

    What I've called linguistic egocentrism (rather than narcissism):

    AZ, 5/3/08: The thin line between error and mere variation 5: getter better (link)

    AZ, 4/21/09: Prejudices, egocentrism, impositions, and intransigence (link)

    And now on my blog, on one reaction to PST sunk: here

  2. Rubrick said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 7:08 pm

    I don't think I was even aware of Hitchens' preferred usage. (I'm Ohio born and bred.) If I encountered it in context (and noticed) I'd have to think a bit to understand the intent. My brain doesn't maintain a very strong connection between brutal and the noun brute (the latter not being so common these days), so "brutalize" meaning "make more like a brute" doesn't spring readily to mind.

  3. Stephen Nicholson said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 7:34 pm

    The kinds of arguments made by Hitchens swayed me when I was younger. It's hard not to be for things like "accurate and discriminating choice of language". Arguments that make appeals to clarity and precision are, somewhat ironically, emotionally appealing to me.

    Being unaware of linguistics, and unable to test these claims, I found myself uneasy in my word choices. I'm glad I've stumbled onto this site, it's made me aware of how we scientifically study language. But now, that makes me curious, is there really "one common verb that describes the effect of violence or cruelty or brutality on those who, rather than suffering from it, inflict it?"

    I don't know if common verb is a term of art, or if he meant simple a verb in common use. But my thesaurus (Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Thesaurus, 2nd Ed) says that animalize, bestialize, dehumanize are synonyms, of the dictionary's first definition. Of those three, I can see someone using dehumanize to describe what perpetrating violence on others might do to someone. (About as well as I can see someone using brutalize.)

    Among the related words the thesaurus gives I can see corrupt and warp being used as well.

    Of course, part of Hitchen's problem might that he thought brutalize only had one definition to begin with. Or it could be the well documented pheromone where people seeing words with somewhat overlapping senses being defined by peevers in a way as to eliminate the overlap. (The post on hard versus difficult being good one.) Under this hypothesis, because there are other words that describe what happens to victims, brutalize should only be used for attackers so as to eliminate the overlap.

    Anyways, thanks for continually making me think about language and giving me new ways to look at English specifically.

  4. J Lee said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 7:43 pm

    I wondered if this column might attract LL's attention. Hitchens is a repeat offender here. I'm curious whether there have been successful campaigns by men worshipped for their gifts as writers and speakers to restore an obsolete meaning of a word.

  5. Lars Karlsson said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 7:59 pm

    If anyone can make the tide retreat at their command, it's Hitchens.

  6. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 8:16 pm

    I'm with Rubrick above: I consider myself reasonably well-read (I am an academic who has long had a love of language) and I'm honestly not sure if I've ever encountered the word "brutalize" being used in Hitchens' sense.

  7. ybin said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 8:20 pm

    Funny that I actually read Justice Samuel Alito's dissenting opinion, found the phrase "the brutalization of innocent victims" that he used quite interesting and noted it down in my phrase book. Now, I feel I need to erase that entry.

  8. Joe Fineman said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 8:46 pm

    I was born in 1937. Up until the 1960s, Hitchens's sense of "brutalize" was the only one I was aware of. When I first noticed the later sense, I saw it as a vulgar covering word, saving the speaker the trouble of deciding among "beat", "insult", etc., and probably inspired by the phrase "police brutality", which had recently enjoyed renewed popularity. However, I looked it up, and discovered what you have discovered.

    I sympathize with Mr Hitchens, all the same. There seems not to be a one-word equivalent of the original meaning. I suppose these days I would have to say "render brutal" or "morally degrade".

  9. GeorgeW said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 8:54 pm

    I too was unaware of archaic meaning asserted by Hitchens. So, I initially read it as meaning the inflicter of brutality, in doing so, becomes a victim themselves.

    It is a little surprising that an educated, intelligent person would write a piece such as this without at least doing a little research, like consulting a dictionary.

    [(myl) Alas, failure to consult dictionaries is pretty much standard in the punditry biz.]

  10. John Roth said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 9:32 pm

    I've seen both usages, and find it quite easy to separate them by context. The transitive rather than reflexive meaning does seem more common, though. (Hopefully I've used the terms properly.)

  11. Jason said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 9:41 pm

    Narcissist is the right word:

    "Alito's hold on English is pitifully weak at the best of times."

    I hate Justice Alito more than Hitchens could possibly aspire to, but nobody sane could possibly argue that Alito had a "pitifully weak" hold on English. This whole column is the standard Hitchens "I'm smarter than everyone else" posturing, another instance of his obnoxious intellectual snobbery. What better snobbery is there than to erect a shiboleth around the "incorrect", commonly accepted modern meaning of "brutalize" in favor of a marginal and dated sense.

  12. Sybil said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 9:45 pm

    @ John Roth: I was going to say the same. And that's interesting, isn't it, that I (and you) don't have trouble telling which is meant. Hitchens can rest easy. But he won't, I suspect.

  13. Xmun said,

    March 7, 2011 @ 10:50 pm

    @ Jason: Um, how do you "erect" a shibboleth? You make it sound like a tabernacle.

  14. D.O. said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 1:31 am

    It seems that the linguistic point is absolutely irrelevant to Mr. Hitchens larger point — inaction of Obama administration in the Libyan civil war. There seems no reason to bring it up at all. If he wanted a catchy punchline

    Indifference of this kind to the lives of others can have a coarsening effect. It can lower one's threshold of sympathy. If protracted unduly, it might even become brutalizing.

    he could use barbarizing, which it seems more or less captures Mr. Hitchens preferred meaning of brutalize.
    This is not an international policy blog, but to the extent that analyzing rhetorical figures is within it's remit, I would like to point out this nice analogy.

    But the pilots of Qaddafi's own air force, who flew their planes to Malta rather than let themselves be used against civilians, have demonstrated more courage and principle than the entire U.S. Sixth Fleet.

    The direct meaning suggests that U.S. Sixths Fleet would show courage and principle if it started the war on Qaddafi without the command from on high. Is there a nice Latin phrase that captures speaker's inability, while in the heat of the argument, to pause and analyze what kind of idiocy he is emitting?

  15. T. Nieminen said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 3:59 am

    I'm a non-native and first came across "brutalize" in Bob Marley lyrics. Trenchtown Rock from 1971 (possibly earlier) has the line "Hit me with music, harder, brutalize me with music" and Slave Driver from the same period has the line "How they brutalized the very souls". Both OED senses fit, although I suspect Bob had the second sense in mind.

  16. George said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 4:08 am

    Hitchens' preferred meaning is familiar to me (I'm Irish, although I don't know how much that may have to do with it) and I certainly use the word 'brutalise' in that sense. However, the other meaning is equally familiar to me and I have almost certainly used it in that sense as well on occasion. It's a bit like 'sanction' or 'cleave', one of those words that can have two almost opposite meanings depending on context. I would regret the loss of the Hitchens sense, as I agree that it's useful to have it available, but to suggest that the other sense should be 'abolished' is plain silly, not just because it's impossible to decree such a thing but because the two senses can quite happily cohabit without causing confusion.

  17. a George said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 4:45 am

    Having lived a sheltered life, I have never come across brutalize and my guess, dependent on context, would have been that it was an extreme form of bullying. Had the term been "brutify" I would have caught on instantly. And English is flexible enough for this. Mr. Hitchens should not try to pull "brutalise" back on track, but use my flexible term instead. It even avoids the z-s dichotomy!

    [(myl) Others have been there before you, as the OED documents:

    1848 J. S. Mill Princ. Polit. Econ. ii. v. §2 Hopeless slavery effectually brutifies the intellect.

    But it's worth noting, once again, that not every concept must be expressed in a single word in order to be communicated. Phrases like "become brutal", "make brutal", and "treat brutally" are always available to those who want to avoid ambiguity about who is doing what to whom.]

  18. Christopher said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 7:55 am

    This has annoyed Hitchens for decades… As far back as 1985, in an essay called "The Chorus and Cassandra", detailing criticism of Chomsky's purported views on the Holocaust, Hitchens writes: "I also dissent from [Chomsky], quite often … on his repeated misuse of the verb "to brutalize".
    Give it up, man.

    (I happened to be reading the essay when I saw this post.)

  19. Bob Lieblich said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 8:14 am

    I, too, dislike seeing useful distinctions eroded. Unlike Hitchens, I have long since surrendered. I do allow myself the occasional discreet wince.

    And if you're looking for someone as arrogant as Hitchens and as eager to enforce moribund distinctions, consider Kingsley Amis, who wrote an entire book in which that is a principal theme. He called it (no kidding) "The King's English."

  20. Pflaumbaum said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 8:30 am

    I remember Pinker admitting to feeling a bit peevish about the erosion of the nice distinctions offered by his preferred use of disinterested:

    Finally, a confession. When I hear someone use [disinterested] to mean "apathetic," I am apt to go into a rage. [Disinterested] (I suppose I must explain that it means "unbiased") is such a lovely word: it is ever-so-subtly different from [impartial] or [unbiased] in implying that that the person has no stake in the matter, not that he is merely committed to being even-handed out of personal principle. It gets this fine meaning from its delicate structure: [interest] means "stake," as in [conflict of interest] and [financial interest]; adding [-ed] to a noun can make it pertain to someone that owns the referent of that noun, as in [moneyed], [one-eyed], or [hook-nosed]; [dis-] negates the combination. The grammatical logic reveals itself in the similarly-structured [disadvantaged, disaffected, disillusioned, disjointed] and [dispossessed]. Since we already have the word [uninterested], there can be no reason to rob discerning language-lovers of [disinterested] by merging their meanings, except as a tacky attempt to sound more elevated and high-falutin'. And don't get me started on [fortuitous] and [parameter].

    But then he cedes to reality:

    Chill out, Professor. The original, 18th Century meaning of [disinterested] turns out to be — yes, "uninterested." And that, too, makes grammatical sense. The adjective [interested] meaning "engaged" is far more common than the noun [interest] meaning "stake," so [dis-] can be analyzed as simply negating that adjective, as in [discourteous], [dishonest], [disloyal], and the parallel [dissatisfied] and [distrusted]. But these rationalizations are beside the point.

  21. Brian C. said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 8:35 am

    When people express their annoyance at a particular usage, they're not necessarily wishing their own preference to become some sort of Kantian universal. In matters of taste, you have to speak with some level of wry disdain against your opponents, because the alternative is tepid disinterest.

  22. JimG said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 8:38 am

    Mill's philosophical interest in naming and description (note Errol Morris' mention in today's NYT on-line "The Ashtray") is an apt addition to the discussion, as was Hobbes' use of brutish to refer to a subhuman condition. I always wondered how brute and 'brutal' somehow morphed into 'brutalized' instead of something like 'brutized'. Meseems that there was some fast and loose play with nouns that were made adjectival and then re-nouned and then verbed. I find Prof. Liberman's Mill citation much more satisfying and descriptive than the OED's choices. Has Hitchens perhaps simply misused 'brutalize' in his attempt to describe how brutish action degrades the actor as much as the objects of the brutal treatment who are reduced to brutes? Maybe we DON'T have a good verb for the effect on the actor.

  23. Ian Preston said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 8:40 am

    Others have been there before you, as the OED documents:

    1848 J. S. Mill Princ. Polit. Econ. ii. v. §2 Hopeless slavery effectually brutifies the intellect.

    There is more than one way of becoming brute-like. I don't think Mill was drawing attention to the coarsening of sympathy or moral depravation of the enslaver that Hitchens has in mind but to the degradation of the intellect that follows for the enslaved. The passage from which this drawn is one in which he is arguing that slavery, besides the many other reasons to object to it, is inefficient and unproductive because it discourages the development of slaves' skills. He quotes de Sismondi using the word again a few pages later to refer to the deadening effect of oppression on the oppressed:

    It is true an oppressive government may destroy the comfort and brutify the intelligence which should be the result of property.

    I am quite familiar with Hitchens' preferred usage; I don't think I have heard 'brutalise' used with this meaning.

    [(myl) If I understand what you're asking for, it's encompassed in the OED's sense 2 of brutalize, a transitive verb glossed "To render brutal or inhuman; to imbue with a brutal nature", which could refer either to "coarsening of sympathy" or to "degradation of the intellect", or both. The OED gives these citations, which seem ambiguous with respect to this distinction:

    a1704 T. Brown To Lumenissa in Duke of Buckingham Wks. (1705) II. ii. 113 Which‥Were but at once to Brutalize Mankind.
    1833 H. Martineau French Wines & Politics iv. 54 The efforts that were made to infatuate and brutalize the people.
    1885 A. J. C. Hare Stud. Russia i. 23 That which does most to brutalize the lower orders in Russia is their constant habit of intemperance.

    Some examples that seem to on the intellectual degradation side: from the NYT in 1982 "… those 'dark, Satanic mills' Blake wrote of, that tend to stupify and brutalize"; the BNC has "… recognising that slavery had damaged its victims and 'brutalized their minds'".]

  24. chris said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 9:35 am

    It's a bit like 'sanction' or 'cleave', one of those words that can have two almost opposite meanings depending on context.

    I don't think they're opposite meanings at all. Prisons are infamous for brutalizing their prisoners in *both* senses; indeed, you could say that they brutalize the prisoners (in Hitchens' preferred sense) by brutalizing them (in the now-more-common sense).

    The whole concept of "cycle of abuse" is based on the fact that brutal treatment, if unchecked, has a tendency to brutalize both the abuser *and* the victim.

  25. Ian Preston said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 10:02 am

    If I understand what you're asking for ..

    Yes, you do and your later examples, especially, convince me that I'm overreaching with that claim. It strikes me that 'bestialise' might be an etymologically similar term that is more current that 'brutify' and tends possibly to be more distinctively suggestive of Hitchens' preferred meaning (though I am sure that is not used exclusively in one way or the other either).

  26. stripey_cat said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 10:33 am

    It's not even as though there aren't near-synonyms for both senses anyway: harden or corrupt for the effect of brutality on the perpetrator, and degrade or dehumanise for the effect on the victim. I personally quite like being able to use the same word for both, as it makes the point about both sides losing humanity.

  27. Zythophile said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 11:22 am

    Not many comments, I think, from BrE speakers here: my impression (which, of course, is likely to be wildly wrong, though it seems to be borne out by myl's comment on usages in the British National Corpus)) is that in BrE, Christopher Hitchens's preferred meaning for "brutalise", "to render brutal", is the general one, and it's certainly the meaning I would normally ascribe to the word when I come across it: usages in the sense of the OED's meaning (3), "to treat brutally", bring me up short, since I have to reanalyse the sentence to understand the (to me) unusual usage of "brutalise". I'm not excusing Mr Hitchens's peeving, but I believe it's been generated in large part because he's coming from a BrE perspective.

  28. wohz said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 12:04 pm

    With Zytophile, and a little with (the) George, my first reading of 'brutalize' would be Hitchens's preferred one, and the other reading is fairly surprising to me. (I'm Irish — although currently living in America.)

    I now wonder if I have read, say, news articles about children being brutalized by war which intended "merely" to say the children had been treated like animals, but I understood that the children had been turned into insensible brutes/dehumanized such that they themselves are now more likely to misuse others (which seems a likely concern when condemning the use of child-soldiers, for instance). Which may show that the same word can usefully perform both functions, but that there is a danger of vagueness.

    [A slightly different complication for me is that I'm familiar with people saying that a footballer, perhaps, played brutally — not meaning that he was particularly bestial or violent, but simply that his football was not at all good. Once or twice I've slipped into this usage in America, receiving as a result a couple of surprised looks. Likewise, a film might be described as 'brutal', simply meaning terribly bad, although an aesthete might claim that terrible films brutalize (in either sense) their audience. I suspect this is an Irish usage, but I'm not sure.]

  29. Brett said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 12:22 pm

    @ whoz: As an American, if you told me a athlete played "brutally," I would certainly interpret that as meaning he was inexcusably rough. (Consequently, it would probably only make sense in reference to a team sport.) However, I can certainly imagine coming out of a movie theater and remarking, "Wow, that was brutal," as a mocking way of saying that the film was extremely bad. Yet I wouldn't be calling the film itself brutal, or implying that its quality suggested that a wild animal had produced it. Rather, I would mean that the the experience of sitting through it was brutal, that it was a painful ordeal to watch. Of course, this doesn't only apply to films. I could also say, "That was brutal," after listening to a particularly bad political speech, or riding in the trunk of a car with bad suspension over a rutted dirt road. I really did say, "That was brutal," after a bumpy ride like that, and in that situation it is hard to find a referent for "that" apart from the ride itself. Neither the car nor the road, make sense, because they were still right there (next to and under me, respectively) when I said it, and so I would not have referred to them in the past tense.

  30. Boris said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 12:51 pm

    I wonder if this is the reason that UK hasn't taken to "burglarize" very much. Is there a need for a word "to make into a burglar"?

  31. Chandra said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 3:34 pm

    Given that one definition of brute is simply "an animal", and that animals can be loosly categorized as those that eat other animals and those that are eaten by other animals, it seems perfectly logical that "brutalize" has evolved two somewhat-contradictory senses.

    We have no difficulty with this concept when distinguishing between the different ways that one can refer to a person as an animal:

    1) "He's a nice guy in person, but an animal on the playing field."
    2) "They were treated like animals by their superiors."

    So how does allowing "brutalize" more than one sense degrade or impoverish the English language?

  32. Boris said,

    March 8, 2011 @ 5:24 pm

    I think the problem is that some people (like me and some other posters) are no longer aware of the original sense of the word.

  33. chris said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 9:01 am

    As an American, if you told me a athlete played "brutally," I would certainly interpret that as meaning he was inexcusably rough. (Consequently, it would probably only make sense in reference to a team sport.)

    Or Mike Tyson, a man so brutal inside and outside the ring that he was banned from a blood sport.

    ISTM that the proper restriction is "a full-contact sport" — it would make little sense to refer to brutal volleyball, let alone brutal bobsledding or relay racing.

    [(myl) Um, you might want to re-think the volleyball part… and for that matter the bobsled, and even the relay race.]

  34. Edward Carney said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 1:32 pm

    As Hitchens's mention of slaveholders hints, the usage was a common element in the narratives of former slaves, members of the anti-slavery movement and observers of slavery. Persons who've read in this literature and in histories of chattel slavery in the U. S. might be more familiar with it and, most likely, not find it quite so confusing.

    Here's Frederick Douglass in his The Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave (1845): "At this moment, I saw more clearly than ever the brutalizing effects of slavery upon both slave and slaveholder."

    Here is Philip Henry Gosse, an English naturalist from his Letters from Alabama (1859): "Slavery, doubtless, helps to brutalize the character, by familiarizing the mind with the infliction of human suffering. If an English butcher is popularly reputed unfit to serve on a jury, an American slave-owner is not less incompetent to appreciate what is due to man."

    Here is Mary Prince, a former slave in her book The History of Mary Prince – A West Indian Slave (1831): "Slavery is a curse to the oppressor scarcely less than to the oppressed: its natural tendency is to brutalize both."

    The predominant usage in the writing of the period, though, was the usage that referred to slaveholders' treatment of slaves, rather than the brutalizing effects of slavery on the owner. The different usages clearly served a rhetorical purpose.

  35. Mark said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 1:36 pm


    Maybe "brutal artistic gymnastics"? No direct ghits on that… but, of course, in the top ten hits without quotes I get a hit. And that is a sport featuring ribbons on sticks!

    So, Nope. I think an intrinsic part of Sports is that either the sport or the training for it can be described as "brutal". Even trampoline!

  36. chris said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 4:26 pm

    @both Marks: I think I made insufficient allowance for figurative or exaggerative uses of "brutal". Any competition with a sufficiently large margin of victory may be defined using violence as a metaphor, even if the thing being competed at isn't violent.

  37. Pedant said,

    March 9, 2011 @ 10:20 pm

    @Zythophile: allow me to disillusion you, then. I'm as English as they come, and lived the better part of my formative years in Oxford surrounded by educated folk of Hitchens' generation; and yet if you had asked me to define "brutalize" without reading this article, I would have produced only "treat brutally". I have frequently heard it used unambiguously in that sense, whereas I'm not certain I was aware the "make brutal" definition even existed.

    I do however try to do my own bit to slow the terrible rot that has recently befallen our beautiful language. That's why I invariably use "I shall" to refer to a future obligation and "I will" to refer to a future desire. Why does nobody seem to know that rule any more? </irony>

  38. Nathan Myers said,

    March 10, 2011 @ 2:22 am

    Does it strike anybody else as comical to find CH peeving over the proper, highbrow way to use an "-ize" verb, while the rest of the peevers gnash their teeth at finding it used at all?

  39. The Oxonian Review » Weekly Round-up said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 8:49 am

    […] "The Linguistic Narcissism of Christopher Hitchens", Language Log: "Mr. Hitchens wants to outlaw a sense of brutalize and its derivatives […]

  40. Zythophile said,

    March 11, 2011 @ 10:54 am

    @ Pedant – I'm afraid your personal understanding of "brutalise" is no evidence at all about what the general understanding in Britain of the word The OED shows Britons have been using the word in the "Hitchens" sense since 1704. The British National Corpus shows many Britons still do use it in that sense, even if you never have.

  41. Nicholas Waller said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

    David Cameron, the British PM, just used the form of brutalise Hitchens dislikes in the House of Commons while talking about Libya: "Every day, Gaddafi is brutalising his own people" (Hansard, 14 Mar 2011 : Column 27).

  42. Nicholas Waller said,

    March 18, 2011 @ 1:45 pm

    David Cameron, the British PM, just used the form of brutalise Hitchens dislikes in the House of Commons while talking about Libya: "Every day, Gaddafi is brutalising his own people" (Hansard, 14 Mar 2011 : Column 27).

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