The Edward Snowden Name Game: Whistle-Blower, Traitor, Leaker

Supporters may call him a "whistle-blower" but that term wasn't always so congratulatory

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BOBBY YIP / REUTERS

Photos of Edward Snowden, a contractor at the National Security Agency (NSA), and U.S. President Barack Obama are printed on the front pages of local English and Chinese newspapers in Hong Kong in this illustration photo, June 11, 2013.

What’s in a name? Plenty when it comes to titles for Edward Snowden. A poll released this morning by Quinnipiac University found that more Americans believe the man who disclosed confidential NSA information is a “whistle-blower” than a “traitor.” The survey did not, however, provide a third option for the middle ground, like “leaker” or “sorry, Quinnipiac, neither of those quite fits.”

Since Snowden started dominating the news, media outlets have grappled with what exactly to call him, because it matters. Yes, there are legal reasons, but for culture at large, the distinction is often about connotations of righteousness and wrongdoing. Calling him a whistle-blower, as supporters of Bradley Manning call the WikiLeaks source, has noble connotations; it conjures a martyr who will shed sunlight on immoral behavior for The People’s sake, whatever the cost to himself—though that wasn’t always the case. Calling him a traitor is, of course, less celebratory, while leaker lies in more neutral territory between the two.

The Associated Press, makers of an established stylebook guiding journalists’ on proper usage, recently issued guidance on the Snowden question: “A whistle-blower is a person who exposes wrongdoing. It’s not a person who simply asserts that what he has uncovered is illegal or immoral. Whether the actions exposed by Snowden … constitute wrongdoing is hotly contested, so we should not call them whistle-blowers on our own at this point.” That means for AP writers, that term is off limits, at least for now.

The AP editors go on to say that public opinion is one factor that will eventually determine the right label. According to the Quinnipiac poll, 55% of Americans would currently call Snowden a whistle-blower, while 34% would call him a traitor and 11% can’t choose between the two. When media outlets try to avoid making that call, the result can be overwrought—the linguistic equivalent of getting around a wreck in St. Louis by avoiding Missouri altogether. In a New York Times article, for instance, a writer referred to Snowden as one “who has acknowledged leaking numerous documents.”

Linguist Ben Zimmer, who writes a weekly column for the Wall Street Journal, dug into the history of whistle-blower, which comes from an earlier idiom, to blow the whistle (on). (You’ll be able to read his deep dive this Saturday here.) In the early days, blowing the whistle simply meant to stop something going afoul, like a referee in a boxing match. In the 1930s, Zimmer says, whistle-blower took on a negative spin, becoming the equivalent of “snitch.” A critic of Teamster boss Jimmy Hoffa actually disparaged him as a “notorious fink” and “whistle-blower” in 1960.

Then the 1970s hit and politician Ralph Nader gave the term a makeover. “He was looking for a label that could fit these responsible, civic-minded people working in corporations or government who would step up and report fraud or negligence,” Zimmer says. “He recognized that there was the whole class of terms—like rat, fink, squealer, informer, stool pigeon—and I guess he saw whistle-blower as the easiest to salvage or rehabilitate.” Once Nader salvaged that title, the word’s usage took off.

Whistle Blower Usage

Google Ngram Viewer

Today, dictionary definitions stake out the high ground for whistle-blower and the neutral, or lower ground, for a leaker. The American Heritage Dictionary defines a “whistle-blower” as “one who reveals wrongdoing within an organization to the public or to those in positions of authority.” The Oxford English Dictionary outlines a leak as “an improper or deliberate disclosure of information (e.g. for political purposes).”

Zimmer has traced the “leak” metaphor back to ancient Rome, when a leak described information seeping out like water coming through a leaky roof or shoddy boat hull. In the early 1900s, leak was often used in the passive tense—“information leaked”—without assigning responsibility. In the Deep Throat era, Zimmer says, the word took on a more active sense, describing things people did rather than things that had, you know, just happened.

It’s hard to argue, however you feel about Snowden, that he didn’t leak something. “It’s helpful to introduce him in a terse way and leaker does that,” Zimmer says. “People think of it as more neutral.” And though Quinnipiac didn’t ask Americans if leaker was the best desciptor, most news outlets seem to have come to that conclusion by now. A Lexis news search for “whistle-blower Edward Snowden” turns up 514 results, from all time. The same search for “leaker Edward Snowden” turns up that many in just the past five days.

This is an edition of Wednesday Words, NewsFeed’s weekly feature on language. For the previous post, click here.

18 comments
ReubenCastroAcosta
ReubenCastroAcosta

usa  stop  big  brother  nsa  from  spying  on   you    with  no  warrents    totsal  crimminal   by   corpate  facist   police  state

ReubenCastroAcosta
ReubenCastroAcosta

USA  CORPATE  FACIST  POLICE  STATE   TOTAL  RATS  FINKS  SNITCHES  BY  USA  GOVT

terryclifton1
terryclifton1

We should defer to our allies, and what they think of Snowden, now that they know our government was spying on them as well. It's what your friends think of you that matters the most, not what your enemies think.

kevin3g
kevin3g

Really, only fringe nut logs such as US Congresspeople -- of both idiotic parties -- throw terms like "traitor" and "treason" around, it makes them feel important and powerful. Let's face it, no normal literate non-hysterical person would call Snowden a traitor.

r2d6.51
r2d6.51

Take a look at your declaration of Independence, the preamble to the US Constitution, and read the 4th amendment to the Bill of Rights as my 10 year old granddaughter has who herself believes, what she writes to her classmates in school is nobodies else’s business then her own, when she has enough sense and can read a Webster’s dictionary to know “what the right to privacy means” under the Bill of Rights which is the Supreme Law of the land weather anybody cares to notice or care anymore.

I can remember a time in America where no one would ever tolerate such a massive crime being committed upon the people’s of the world to self-appoint themselves under what is known as, ‘full-spectrum dominance” for global hegemony and control over every other sovereign nation and the lives of every human-being on the planet.

Some 68 years ago just coming off the liberation of Europe to destroy off the face of the earth another political totalitarian state not unlike the one we have, and put on trial their political and military leaders for crimes against humanity and what Supreme Court Justice Robert Jackson said were “Crimes Against the Peace of the World’, for what this massive surveillance program done in secrecy against all Americans and global humanity clearly represents.

r2d6.51
r2d6.51

Especially when you consider this is not something which is confined to the electronic frontiers of America, but a global in scope surveillance system which has already scooped up hundreds of millions electronic communications of not only state secrets of other sovereign nations, but their own sovereign citizens private emails, chats, and mobile phone communications for years now which is a clear violation of International Law and could be considered as it is we do, as an act of war.

And its being done with no open public debate, no open transparency and accountability, and for what legal oversight there is in place, is being done by secret courts who issue secret opinions.

 I mean get real people.

You call this a free and open democratic society? Call it what it is you live under. A police state which has all 3 branches of this government now working hand ion glove with each other to vary out the aggressive policies of a rogue outlaw state sponsored Imperialism run by the plutocratic elite and corporate power not unlike Germany circa 1933-45.

r2d6.51
r2d6.51

This is Matrix and Terminator stuff coming to real life.

Anyone who cannot see what Boundless Informant and Prism  surveillance systems really represent to the world, when you consider we espouse ourselves to be a free and democratic society who operate within the confines of the ‘Rule of Law” mandate has become a complete sham to the world at large.

What Edward Snowden exposed was not lawfully obtained de jure  classified information, but evidence of a conspiracy to keep secret under the rues of a device to cover-up criminal evidence for which indictments and an impeachment proceeding should be invoked upon Obama, for of all people who swore an oath to uphold the rule of law and faithfully execute the laws of the United States, but as a Constitutional Law scholar of all people, knows this is a clear violation of the 4th amendment to the bill of rights for which he is sworn an oath  to defend and protect has done neither.

TerryConklin
TerryConklin

Thanks Time for the useless article. Now do one on The intelligence community and NSA's crimes.

jmac
jmac

@kevin3g Our Cyberwar talks with China have hit a brick wall because of Snowden:

" after former U.S. intelligence contractor Edward Snowden revealed that U.S. spy agencies hacked deep into China and other countries’ computer networks, including those of government, military, research,educational and business organizations.”

What do YOU call someone who tells China how we spy on them in an interview in a Chinese newspaper?  Some of us "normal literate non-hysterical" people call that treason.  He gave details to other countries on how we spy.  


jmac
jmac

@r2d6.51 The judges on the Surveillance court has said this is NOT a violation of the 4th amendment.  Maybe you should impeach them.  

S_Deemer
S_Deemer

@theyrelyingtous : Among the ridiculous stories on the site you reference: 

"Millions of people adore Apple Inc. products and readily admit the company's cult-like following. Apple's logo is quite significant in light of this occult status. Symbolically, the apple is the forbidden fruit eaten in the garden of Eden. The infamous bite represents the partaking of knowledge, tempted by Satan."

Right. This nonsense is right up there with Proctor & Gamble being Satan's minions. Why would anybody with a shred of intelligence give credence to a site that publishes nonsense like this? Here's what Rob Janoff, designer of Apple's rainbow label (which hasn't been used since 1998) actually said about the design:

"...one of the big phenomena is having the experience of designing a logo for whatever reasons you design it, and years later you find out supposedly why you did certain things. And, they are all BS. It's a wonderful urban legend. Somebody starts it and then people go "oh yeah, that must be it.... 

I designed it with a bite for scale, so people get that it was an apple not a cherry. Also it was kind of iconic about taking a bite out of an apple. Something that everyone can experience. It goes across cultures." 


Sibir_Russia
Sibir_Russia

@jmac@kevin3g 

China’s state newspaper, The People’s Daily, wrote: “The United States has gone from a model of human rights to an eavesdropper on personal privacy, the manipulator of the centralized power over the international internet, and the mad invader of other countries’ networks. . . The world will remember Edward Snowden. It was his fearlessness that tore off Washington’s sanctimonious mask.”

China’s official Xinhua news agency reported that Snowden’s revelations had placed “Washington in a really awkward situation. They demonstrate that the United States, which has long been trying to play innocent as a victim of cyber attacks, has turned out to be the biggest villain in our age.”

jmac
jmac

@kevin3g. "In yet another recent bombshell, Snowden disclosed sensitive U.S. National Security Agency (or NSA) files relating to Brazil."  

  Nothing treasonous there, kevin?  Really?   

terryclifton1
terryclifton1

@jmac @r2d6.51  

They should be impeached, and arrested for violating the very tenet of our Constitution. The right to privacy and our personal freedom. 

cjh2nd
cjh2nd

@S_Deemer

you're wasting your time with him. he's posting his link on a bunch of articles in a sad attempt to get people to read his crappy blog since there's no other way to drum up interest in it

DakotaSnowbone
DakotaSnowbone

@jmac

 @jmac 

Nope. Its heroic. And more people within U.S. intelligence should do it. :D

People like you, who believe patriotism is a slavish allegiance to the state and not its people, should hurry up and go extinct so that the intelligent people can enjoy a world without disgusting government snitches.