Adventures in newspeak: "Authority"

Adventures in Newspeak is a series that highlights the perversities of English that strongly contribute to an oppresive, hierarchical society.

The word "authority" has always bothered me, and Mike Gogulski has given me a chance to explain why. The word authority conflates two separate and only slightly correlated concepts, and this conflation reinforces oppresive power structures. The document that he links to especially irritates me because of how it dances around this extremely problematic word instead of pulling it apart.

Sometimes we use the word authority to mean expertise or knowledgeability, i.e. "In the matter of boots, I refer to the authority of the bootmaker; concerning houses, canals, or railroads, I consult that of the architect or the engineer." (from above linked document) Substitue "knowledge" or "expertise" for "authority" and the sentence does not change meaning. Other times we use the word authority to mean power or control, i.e. "How Much Authority Does the President Possess When He Is Acting as "Commander In Chief"?" (from here) In context, this doesn't ask how expertly the President performs the duties of a Commander-In-Chief, but rather what powers he has in such a situation.

Using the same word for both of these concepts implies that those with power have the knowledge to use it well, and that those with knowledge will gain the power to put it to good use. Ideally this is the case, but it often doesn't quite work that way (just look at the economy). The post that Mike is responding to doesn't even use the word authority, but he inserts it anyways, even though Alberto clearly says which kind of authority he objects to ("oppressive forces weigh down on the average college student"). This arbitrary reinvention of someone's words does not further the deconstruction of power hierarchies.

I am not accusing Mike of intentionally twisting words, or arguing in bad faith. I am simply trying to illuminate an oddity of English that hinders communication so that we can have a more constructive conversation.


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