English Words in the News Posted by gary on Sep 27, 2019 in English Grammar, English Language, English Vocabulary, News
If you’ve been following the news coming out of the US lately, you’ve no doubt heard some terms which don’t mean what you might think they mean. This is typical of the English language. We have a talent for creating metaphors, colloquialisms, and idioms to convey meaning. Some of these have been in usage for so long that they are part of our everyday conversations. The question is, how did they evolve?
A whistleblower is someone who exposes something improper, illegal, or unethical. To “blow the whistle on someone” is to make some crime or impropriety publicly known. The term comes to us from the 19th century when police were issued whistles. When a cop blew a whistle it alerted people in the area that something was wrong, and others should take notice. If a crime was in the process of being committed, the whistle sound often brought criminal activity to a halt.
This also reminds many people of the action of a referee in a sporting event, like football. A play comes to a halt if a whistle is blown. However, a whistleblower in private or public has no authority to make some malfeasance stop. Rather, they are reporting their observations to others who do have authority.
Whistleblowers know that they are taking a risk of reporting their accusations. Those who are the targets of a whistleblower’s report may take reprisals, or revenge, on the whistleblower. A whistleblower in a company could lose their job and be faced with legal action. Many companies demand that employees sign a non-disclosure agreement, or NDA. These legally binding documents make whistleblowing a dangerous action.
In government or military situations, whistleblowers must report to higher authorities who simply may not believe them. There are many different laws intended to protect whistleblowers, but there are no absolute guarantees for their safety. If a name becomes public, the repercussions of exposing information against people who are powerful can be very serious.
There are also ethical questions surrounding whistleblowing. Many question the motives and decency of someone who would breach confidentiality and damage the reputations of co-workers and people who trusted them. There may never be a greater dilemma than that faced by someone who is torn between loyalty and a sense of moral and/or civic duty.
In modern English, a witch-hunt is not literally a search for someone who practices witchcraft. We understand a witch-hunt to be a persecution of someone who holds different views. Historically, witches were blamed for any number of awful things simply because they held different beliefs and lived an alternative lifestyle. Anyone who wasn’t conforming to societal norms could be accused of witchcraft.
Today, political opponents conduct witch-hunts on each other because they disagree over policies and fundamental beliefs. So, it is a metaphor. The term is generally political and associated with investigations which are carried out to uncover presumed criminal behavior. Of course, an investigation may have genuine justifications, and the view that it has become a witch-hunt is the opinion of the person being investigated and that person’s supporters.
You’ll hear these words a lot in today’s news. What’s important to remember is that knowing what they mean is only the beginning. There is nothing simple about either of them.