Today's language lesson

I’ve written before about my dedication to language. Another way in which that manifests itself is in how much I get bothered when I see or hear words being misused, especially when it’s done deliberately for purely political reasons.

For example, let’s look at the word “vigilante.”

Originally, it meant “member of a vigilance committee,” and it has evolved to refer to private citizens acting in a law-enforcement capacity without official sanction. Nowadays, though, it’s evolved into a pejorative term, usually applied to those who advocate enforcing laws others don’t like.

Here are a few examples:

1) A group of citizens band together to watch for people breaking the law by entering the United States illegally, and then notify law enforcement officials about the actions: not vigilantes. They are not enforcing the law directly, simply observing and reporting.

2) A police chief, fed up with federal apathy about illegal aliens, finds a novel application of existing law and arrests a Mexican who sneaked across the border for “criminal trespass”: not a vigilante. The chief is a licensed law enforcement officer; he is authorized and, indeed, required to enforce the laws by the government.

3) A man, fed up with people violating parking rules in his neighborhood, starts keying cars, spraypainting cars, smearing them with chocolate syrup, spray paint or dog feces, and various other punishments: this guy IS a vigilante.

I’m a smidgen sympathetic with Mr. Feest. I’ve been tempted to deal with parking idiots on my own. But I haven’t, and I’m not about to.

Here’s hoping the law jumps on Mr. Feest with both feet over this. I think they will — Massachusetts might have a history of giving weekend passes to convicted murderers serving life sentences and letting guys who leave a woman to drown in a car off with a suspended jail term and their license revoked, but this guy is a right-wing nut. He’s doomed.

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  1. Jim May 25, 2005
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