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Words, Aug. 21



On top of Old Sparky, I'd rather not be …

From a newspaper article about the new National Museum of Crime and Punishment in Washington:

“While ‘Old Smokey,' the electric chair used to put 125 criminals to death in Tennessee, is authentic, gangster Al Capone's ‘Park Avenue' jail cell from Eastern State Penitentiary is a re-creation.”

It's possible that Tennessee called its electric chair “Old Smokey,” but I'd bet she used the same nickname as Arkansas and other states — “Old Sparky.” The writer may have been thinking of the folk song that starts off, “On top of Old Smokey, all covered with snow … ”


How about regime change at the Supreme Court?

An American diplomat and a Russian diplomat were debating at a meeting of the United Nations Security Council. The American asked: “Is your government's objective regime change in Georgia?” The Russian replied: “I'd like to say straightaway that regime change is an American expression. We do not use such an expression.”

At least one American doesn't use the expression either, though I've been seeing it in print, uncomprehendingly, for a few years. These days, all information highways lead to Wikipedia, which says:

“ ‘Regime change' is literally the replacement of one regime with another. Regime change can occur through conquest by a foreign power, revolution, coup d'état or reconstruction following the failure of a state. Regime change may replace all or part of the state's existing institutions, administrative apparatus, bureaucracy and other elements. The term has been popularized by recent US Presidents. Bill Clinton and George W. Bush regularly used the term in reference to Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq. Ronald Reagan had previously called for regime change in Libya, directing the CIA to work towards that goal.”

The Word Detective gets to the heart of the matter, as usual, saying that “regime change” is almost always used to mean “forcible replacement of a government at least partly through the actions of an outside party.” And that, he says, “makes it a fairly obvious euphemism for the unpleasantly blunt ‘overthrow.' ”     

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