Sunday 30 August 1998
There are two distinct meanings of the word terror. The first, and the earlier one in English (as I believe it also was in Latin), is a state of extreme fright; the second is the agent of such fright, like the Terror with a capital "T" that brought so much grief to French people under the first Revolution, or to Russians under Stalin.
Terrorists, as agents of terror, may not succeed in inducing it, any more than Flat Earthists can alter the shape of the world. But there still clings to terror a strong sense of the first meaning, of the paralytic fear that snakes can cause in rabbits: it carries at least a hint that the terrorists have already won, and that they really have brought their enemies to the state of inertia and dread implied by the original sense of the word.
Terror is one of those words that won't lie down, despite occasional attempts to anaesthetise it. The Gothick novel was supposed to bring terror to its readers, but of a pleasing sort, to tickle the imaginations of idle young women. In our own time it has been devalued often enough by the tabloid press, which uses it indiscriminately both for large-scale atrocities and for minor domestic upsets. ("Whirlpool terror of long-haired swim girl" - a headline in the Mirror about someone who caught her hair in an outflow pipe, bad enough at the time, but not in the same universe as the Lockerbie bombing.) Its other, second meaning has also been domesticated, but usually by fond parents, who like to use it of their own children. ("He's a regular little terror he is.") Yet it survives, a serious word.
The verb has suffered no such indignities: terrorise means what it says, someone who has been terrorised is in an undeniable state of terror. But a terrorist - whatever the immediate distress he has caused - may not, as I say, succeed. We should not flatter him into thinking otherwise.
What then? I tried the new Roget. Under the section "Violent creature", terrorist nestles between nihilist and revolutionist. Not nasty enough. Suggestions welcomed.
Arts & Ents blogs
- 1 Drugs Live cannabis trial: Hash is less harmful than any other drug, expert claims
- 2 What happens to your body when you give up sugar?
- 3 Turkish Airlines flight TK 726 crash-lands on Nepal runway in dense fog
- 4 Have sex with your iPad thanks to the new sex toy no-one asked for
- 5 The 'sex selfie stick' lets you FaceTime the inside of a vagina
The Great Comic Relief Bake Off, TV review: Alexa Chung impresses, but Chris Moyles makes Paul Hollywood gag
Drugs Live: Twitter responds to Jon Snow and Jennie Bond smoking cannabis
Seth Rogan's pot fumes delay hacked Sony boss’s office move
India's Daughter: BBC Four documentary provokes outrage on Twitter
Fifty Shades of Grey movie shows first sex scene 'after 40 minutes'
Durham Free School: 'Creationism taught at' free school facing closure
Nearly 100,000 of Britain's poorest children go hungry after parents' benefits are cut
Ukip would cut billions from Scottish budget to fund English tax cuts
End of the licence fee: BBC to back radical overhaul of how it is funded
Ukraine crisis: Top Chinese diplomat backs Putin and says West should 'abandon zero-sum mentality'
Boris Nemtsov shot dead: Outspoken Putin critic who had expressed fears for his life is killed near the Kremlin