<< back to the archive list

July 21st, 2004

Terror vs. terrorism / everyday and every day

by Barbara Wallraff

Don Herzberg, of Sharon, Vt., writes: “When and why did the media start saying ‘terror’ instead of ‘terrorism’? My guess is that the change was made because President Bush couldn’t say ‘terrorism.’”

Dear Don: Now, there’s a wild conspiracy theory: that the media have collectively decided to ape President Bush. But this theory turns on whether the president can in fact say “terrorism,” doesn’t it? Let’s see. It’s true that during his State of the Union speech last January, Bush said the word “terror” five times. But he did also say “terrorism” -- just once. He said “terrorist” or “terrorists” 14 times, though. Surely these words are as hard to pronounce as “terrorism.” I’ll grant you that Bush has his own way of saying “terrorism” and “terrorist”: “terrism” and “terrist.” But so much for your theory.

In reality, “terror” began to be used more or less interchangeably with “terrorism” even before George Bush Sr. was president. For instance, an Associated Press story about Israel that ran 20 years ago this month mentioned “the prestate underground which fought British rule in Palestine with terror and assassination.” Old dictionaries give the impression that “terror” and “terrorism” don’t overlap in meaning. But today’s dictionaries say otherwise. For instance, one of the definitions of “terror” in the current edition of Webster’s New World Dictionary is “a program of terrorism or a party, group, etc. resorting to terrorism.”

In actual usage (my news databases tell me) the major change that has come over “terror” in the past few years has to do with innocuous, non-terrorism-related expressions. These aren’t as common as they used to be. For instance, a baseball player is now less likely to be called “a terror at bat.”

Gary Greenwell, of Detroit, Mich., writes: “I’ve long been annoyed by dumbed-down advertising, but at least many of the examples of this are intentional stylizations. One thing I commonly see in national commercials and print ads appears to be an outright mistake: expressions like ‘Half-price everyday’ rather than ‘every day’ or ‘daily.’ Isn’t that wrong?”

Dear Gary: It sure is. I see “everyday” misused a lot too. And frankly, I’m mystified about why people have trouble with it. Most of us do just fine at distinguishing between similar pairs. Consider “everybody” and “every body”: “Everybody wears clothes.” “Every body is different, so people wear different styles and sizes of clothes.” Likewise, we can tell “everyone” and “every one” apart: “Doesn’t everyone like to look good?” “Every one of us likes to look good.”

OK, maybe the difference between “Everyday low prices” and “Low prices every day” -- both of which are correct -- is subtle. Except it isn’t really. “Everyday” and “every day” play different roles in a sentence. “Everyday,” which is almost always an adjective, is the right choice in front of a noun: “This is an everyday outfit for everyday wear, sold at everyday low prices.” And “every day” is right almost anywhere else: “In the summertime I wear a polo shirt every day.” “I get my shirts at a store that has low prices every day.” How tricky is that?

© Copyright 2003 by Barbara Wallraff. Reprints require prior permission. All rights reserved.

<< back to the archive list