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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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  • petew

    Whew, I finally finished this long post even though it was like listening to a professor of linguistics deliver a long boring lecture. But you have a point Mr. Williams, Brute would seem equally applicable to humans and animals for most of us. I’d also say that adjectives like “harsh” and “unrelenting” completely describe the myriad of negative ads and sensational news stories, that are typical of the negative coverage given to the Benghazi story. But I don’t even know it the Obama administration had a good reason to lie or censor information? It’ not like the first story about ruthless Al-quada operatives who infiltrated our sacred and supposedly secure areas. Recently soldiers trained by US troops have been turning on Americans in Afghanistan, and frequently a suicide bomber will manage to take out himself and severalmilitary brass. Will these reports result in Obama losing an election? Are they all his fault, and his alone?

    Before all this hoopla began I considered the health care bill to be only about a program that sought to help people without medical coverage. But, now, we can’t even discuss it without mentioning socialism or some other vacuous accusation.

    But back to Mr. Williams–consider that language is continually evolving and in 100 years some of the words in your column or my post may not even be used by the general public. Maybe the only definition of brute then, will be “a deodorant spray used by men.” why over think its present meaning?

  • Enjoyed the discussion and excavation on these words with the appropriate caution about the consequences of over use and over acceptance of their intent during seasons such as this one.

    Good word smithing.

  • Thank you, Gwen.

    As to petew: you seem to miss the point of the essay in every possible direction. First, it was not partisan. I took care to take examples from all sides.

    Second, I am not attempting a lecture in linguistics. Sorry that finding out what a word means is tantamount to a “long boring lecture.”

    Although, if true, it would equally apply to your final deconstruction of the meaning of all words, one supposes.

    Generally, I find “Eschew sesquipedalianism” the wisest course.

  • ShannonLeee

    Brutal is not the only word being misused. We live in a click counting world where the most extreme headlines get the most clicks. Extreme words have lost there meaning…

    Parachuting isnt enough, now we must break the sound barrier during the jumo to be extreme.

    It’s a culture problem, or lack there of.

  • zephyr

    But, as words mean something, they also represent a sort of wind sock view into the Collective Obnoxious.

    Good observation – and nicely stated. Let’s hope the word doesn’t lose any of it’s power from overuse though because the applications (along with the word stupid) seem to just keep coming.

  • ShannonLeee

    Just as a side note… “Brutal” in German (spelled the same, spoken differently) is also a commonly used word and has lost its power within the German culture.

    I can imagine similar things happening in Japanese Spanish ect..

  • DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

    Interesting and enjoyable post, as usual.

    Just my dos centavos and mijn twee centen:

    In Spanish brutal has similar meaning, in addition to “savage” as in “what a savage beating, or crime”

    However bruto means also ignorant, in addition to uncouth and violent.

    Then, as in peso bruto, it means “gross weight,” and as in en bruto, it means crude as in “crude oil” or as in “uncut diamond”

    In Dutch, brutaal has a “softer” meaning, as in “insolent” and “brass.”

    As in Spanish, the Dutch bruto also means “gross” as in gross weight, etc.

    Language is fascinating

  • petew

    Mr. Williams,

    Was your point that we should be careful when choosing which words we use because they may project different meanings to different people? If so, I think the conventional understanding of those of us who grow up around those words includes a bit of all the definitions for “Brutal!” The only point in clarifying or belaboring the matter applies when someone complains of a particular definition. That’s why I made mention that the particular definition of Brutal,as “harsh or severe”, is fully adequate for describing the press coverage of the Benghazi embassy attack. I didn’t intend that this opinion or any other was made to quibble with any partisan or non-partisan views you might have. The embassy attack and the wild accusations about the health care bill, were only examples that came to mind when I reflected on the power of words to influence us.

    Sorry, to bluntly refer to your piece as a boring lecture. But it did actually seem ponderous to read. But I still was interested in seeing how you would end it.

    I suppose I may not yet really understand your point, because in most cultures, the majority of us have a general and similar idea about the meaning of common words. Dissecting these words to uncover an inconsistency sometimes only exacerbates the problem in my opinion.

    Your post is not boring in the sense that it might be characterized as having NO value, but I did think you managed to make much ado about nothing. Sorry! I also failed to find sespuipedalianism in my small and basic Merriam-Webster dictionary. Another indication that its various meanings will never be of particular importance to the average person. However, Brutal, is understood in a much more fundamental way.

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