Time, “The Edward Snowden Name Game: Whistle-Blower, Traitor, Leaker”

July 10, 2013

Katy Steinmetz, “The Edward Snowden Name Game: Whistle-Blower, Traitor, Leaker” (Time, July 10, 2013)

Linguist Ben Zimmer, who writes a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal, dug into the history of whistle-blower, which comes from an earlier idiom, to blow the whistle (on). (You’ll be able to read his deep dive this Saturday here.) In the early days, blowing the whistle simply meant to stop something going afoul, like a referee in a boxing match. In the 1930s, Zimmer says, whistle-blower took on a negative spin, becoming the equivalent of “snitch.” A critic of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa actually disparaged him as a “notorious fink” and “whistle-blower” in 1960.

Then the 1970s hit and politician Ralph Nader gave the term a makeover. “He was looking for a label that could fit these responsible, civic-minded people working in corporations or government who would step up and report fraud or negligence,” Zimmer says. “He recognized that there was the whole class of terms—like rat, fink, squealer, informer, stool pigeon—and I guess he saw whistle-blower as the easiest to salvage or rehabilitate.” Once Nader salvaged that title, the word’s usage took off. …

Zimmer has traced the “leak” metaphor back to ancient Rome, when a leak described information seeping out like water coming through a leaky roof or shoddy boat hull. In the early 1900s, leak was often used in the passive tense—“information leaked”—without assigning responsibility. In the Deep Throat era, Zimmer says, the word took on a more active sense, describing things people did rather than things that had, you know, just happened.

It’s hard to argue, however you feel about Snowden, that he didn’t leak something. “It’s helpful to introduce him in a terse way and leaker does that,” Zimmer says. “People think of it as more neutral.”

Read the rest here. (Related Wall Street Journal column)

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