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Posted by on Oct 13, 2012 in Guest Contributor, Politics, Society | 8 comments


Words mean something. We forget that too often. (See: “I Knew a Guy who named his Dog ‘Cujo’ ” Aug 16, 2011.)

Busted Caesar

And the term that’s appeared like the knives from Senators’ tunics that were the last thing that Caesar ever saw is “brutal.”

I don’t know why this is so, but it is so. Two separate headlines caught my eye, in opposite directions, two campaigns were accused of releasing “brutal” new ad. And then I noticed that the word has started showing up with greater frequency over the last three weeks.

I don’t think that’s the word you’re looking for Vizzini.

Wallace Shawn as Vizzini in The Princess Bride

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Ed. (my all time favorite dictionary) defines the word thusly:

1. Extremely ruthless or cruel.
2. Crude or unfeeling in manner or speech.
3. Harsh; unrelenting: a brutal winter in the Arctic.
4. Disagreeably precise or penetrating: spoke with brutal honesty.
brutal·ly adv.

And the Rupert Murdoch HarperCollins Collins (Unabridged) Dictionary, 2003 says it even more brutally:

brutal adj
1. cruel; vicious; savage
2. extremely honest or coarse in speech or manner
3. harsh; severe; extreme brutal cold
brutality n
brutally adv

But in the absence of the root of that simile, the word doesn’t quite make precise sense.

A brute; a beast.

brute n.
1. An animal; a beast.
2. A brutal, crude, or insensitive person.
1. Of or relating to beasts; animal: “None of the brute creation requires more than food and shelter” (Henry David Thoreau).
2. Characteristic of a brute, especially:
a. Entirely physical: brute force.
b. Lacking or showing a lack of reason or intelligence: a brute impulse.
c. Savage; cruel: brute coercion.
d. Unremittingly severe: was driven to steal food through brute necessity.
3. Coarse; brutish.
[From Middle English, nonhuman, from Old French brut, from Latin brutus, stupid …]

But Collins throws in a monkey wrench with their definition:

a. any animal except man; beast; lower animal
b. (as modifier) brute nature
2. a brutal person [this is weirdly a tautology, since, to understand ‘brutal’ you have to understand ‘brute’ and defining a word by itself isn’t cricket.]
adj (prenominal)
1. wholly instinctive or physical (esp in the phrases brute strength, brute force)
2. without reason or intelligence
3. coarse and grossly sensual
[from Latin brutus heavy, irrational; related to gravis heavy]

OK. According to two separate dictionaries, brutal is derived either from irrational, stupid and/or heavy.


Dictionary dot com confirms this:

Origin:  1375–1425; late Middle English < Middle French < Latin brutus heavy, devoid of feeling, irrational

Merriam Webster confirms this hypothesis, although I think the American Heritage Dictionary struck closer to the meaning “stupid” as in “thick” or “dense” or even “blockhead.”

Middle English, from Middle French brut rough, from Latin brutus brutish, literally, heavy; akin to Latin gravis heavy — more at grieve

Let’s see what the Oxford English Dictionary (sort of the Guiness Book of World Records for words in English) has to say.

late Middle English (as an adjective): from Old French brut(e), from Latin brutus ‘dull, stupid’

The point herein is that ‘brutal’ is a disturbing term to throw around. Its English origins are for dumb animal that you can abuse in any way you like (this is waaaay pre-PETA), and calling someone stupid by comparing them to a dumb beast. I have a feeling that the Latin nuances were kind of lost in the transition through the Dark Ages into Middle English. Just sayin’.

The English meaning of brutal means ‘like an animal’ and there’s nothing “brutal” in either of those ads,  it is a mischaracterization and slanting to use this term in a headline such as this (‘decking’ and ‘brutal bolo punch’ has already poisoned the well, as any Journalism 101 class teaches):

Jjesselli / The Smoking Gun:
Oct 13, 2012
Cleveland Bus Driver Suspended After Decking Unruly Female Rider With Brutal Bolo Punch

Or this:

Oct 10, 2012
Brutal Ad Hits White House On Libya Timeline Contradictions

Or this thermofax posting:

The Daily Caller:
Oct 11, 2012
Brutal ad hits White House on Libya timeline contradictions

Or this:

Greg Sargent/Washington Post
Sep 27, 2012

Brutal new Obama ad features Mitt Romney and the 47 percenters


Talking Points Memo – Oct 12, 2012
Carmona Campaign Fires Back At Flake’s Brutal Ad

and this:

Oct 11, 2012
A look at the brutal Flake ad on Carmona (AZ SEN)

And the continuation of the use of this ill-advised, heavy term.

Grace Wyler/Business Insider
Oct. 9, 2012
Rand Paul Is Launching A Brutal Ad Campaign To Destroy Democrats Over Foreign Aid


The Right Scoop
October 9, 2012
BRUTAL new American Crossroads web ad destroys Obama over the 9/11 Benghazi attacks


Janet Shan/The Moderate Voice
Sep 27, 2012
Obama Campaign Releases Another Brutal Ad Slamming Mitt …

Whence the sudden popularity of “brutal”?  Why its sudden emergence in the last three weeks?

It is a mathom of the zeitgeist. But perhaps the faint wisps of high ice clouds on the front edge of a much larger storm front, moving in.

Things are bad enough without importing “brutal” into the headlines. But, as words mean something, they also represent a sort of wind sock view into the Collective Obnoxious. And, if the shooting of the occupied Obama Campaign Office in Denver, Colorado doesn’t bother you, perhaps it OUGHT to.

Just take care that your last words don’t end up “Et tu, Brute …?



A writer, published author, novelist, literary critic and political observer for a quarter of a quarter-century more than a quarter-century, Hart Williams has lived in the American West for his entire life. Having grown up in Wyoming, Kansas and New Mexico, an honorary Texan, Clown (ditto) and a veteran of Hollywood, Mr. Williams currently lives in Oregon, along with an astonishing amount of pollen. He has a lively blog His Vorpal Sword. This is cross-posted from his blog

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