The Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Obama administration is "urging protesters from Bahrain to Morocco to work with existing rulers toward what some officials and diplomats are now calling 'regime alteration.'" That sounds like a kinder, gentler version of regime change, which itself has a euphemistic ring to it. If President Obama came into office riding a wave of change, why is that word suddenly problematic?
The term regime change has something of a checkered past in diplomacy circles. William Safire, my predecessor in writing the now-suspended On Language column in The New York Times Magazine, tackled the expression twice, in 2002 and 2008. As Safire explained, even though the Oxford English Dictionary traces its usage back to 1925, it became a foreign-policy catchphrase in the 1990s. The Iraq Liberation Act of 1998, signed by President Clinton, called for the toppling of Saddam Hussein under the name of regime change. The expression returned in full force in the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003, and opponents of President Bush's foreign policy countered with the slogan ''Regime Change Begins at Home'' in the 2004 elections.
Safire glossed regime change as a euphemism for "overthrow of government," toned down for the careful phrasing of the diplomatic set: "Overthrow and topple are hot, vigorous verbs; regime change is a cool, polite noun phrase suggesting transition without collateral damage." But now, apparently, the coolness of regime change isn't quite cool enough when it comes to U.S. policies on the shaky governments of the Middle East. Alteration is now the name of the game. (The Wall Street Journal notes that Libya is the exception to the moderate policy of regime alteration: there, we're committed to good old-fashioned regime change against Muammar Qaddafi.)
Diplomacy is a game of nuances, of course, and the shades of meaning between change and alteration are fine indeed. Change covers a broader semantic sweep, indicating any act of making something different. From that overarching sense, we can discern two main uses: "substitution of one thing for another" and "modification in the quality of something." Both of these subsenses go back to the 13th century, according to the OED. We associate regime change with the first of those senses, a wholesale replacement of one government with another. Avoiding those more drastic connotations requires a change of terms, to the more innocuous-sounding alteration. That's something a tailor would do to a suit or some other article of clothing: take in a little here, let out a little there.
Critics of the Obama administration were natually chortling at what they saw as a milquetoast response to the rapidly shifting geopolitics of the Middle East, especially under a president who campaigned so forcefully for "Change We Can Believe In." On the Daily Caller, Mickey Kaus had fun with the terminological rollback. "Good luck to Obama with that. But doesn't 'regime alteration' sound a bit harsh? I mean, if you were the ruler of Bahrain or Saudi Arabia, would you want your regime 'altered.'" So instead, Kaus playfully suggested "other, even more diplomatic euphemisms":
And commenters chimed in with their own contributions: "regime pivot," "regime reboot," "re-regime" (the last of which could serve as a verb, Kaus said: "We had to re-regime Bahrain last week. Riots got out of hand.")
All in good fun, but the Obama administration is hardly the first one that has tried to find soft words for hard foreign-policy decisions. Ralph Keyes, in his new book Euphemania: Our Love Affair with Euphemisms (reviewed by Mark Peters here) devotes a whole chapter to "words of war," with examples going back to World War I. Lyndon Johnson spoke of our incursion or intervention in Vietnam, later echoed by George W. Bush in the invasion of Iraq. The addition of thousands of additional troops in Iraq in 2006 was first called an augmentation by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who preferred that term to escalation. Of course, the Bush administration eventually dubbed this the surge, which Keyes says "actually euphemized the more controversial but accurate term counterinsurgency."
The moral of the story: If you ever want to become a diplomat or foreign policy adviser, be prepared to make many alterations to your language!
Ben Zimmer is executive producer of the Visual Thesaurus and Vocabulary.com. He is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society.Click here to read other articles by Ben Zimmer