The Conqueror Term

True story. I saw a copy of Rub Out the Words (2012) on a library shelf. It’s a collection of letters by core counter-cultural colossus William S. Burroughs. I pulled the book off the shelf, opened it, and began to search for a hit of heresiarchal heroin. Exactly 23 seconds later, my eyes fell on this phantasmagoric phraseology:

I do not think a writer should be called upon to defend his work in terms of a legal system that dates back to the middle ages.

I was stunned. Exactly 23 seconds. Well, I didn’t actually time it, but it would have been exactly 23 seconds if you choose the right base. And it was round-about 23 seconds in base 10. So I think reality was trying to tell me something: that Burroughs was part of the Hive Mind. He used a toxic term that good writers shouldn’t use – never, nunca, nohow, nowhere.

And it wasn’t the sole example in the book, I have since learnt. Here, then, are my suggestions for how Burroughs should have rubbed out the offending words and replaced them with something shorter and less vague (the final two examples are by the book’s editor and by someone Burroughs is quoting):

• I do not think a writer should be called upon to defend his work in terms of a legal system that dates back to the middle ages. → in a legal system
• All this is quite possible in terms of existing techniques. → with / by existing techniques
• I am not talking in terms of a thousand years. I am talking in NOW terms. → not talking of a thousand years. I am talking NOW.
• I am thinking in terms of the no-paying far-out magazines like Yugen and Kulchur. → thinking of / about no-paying far-out magazines
• When two or more letters covered the same ground, I selected the best in terms of quality of writing and completeness of thought. → in quality of writing
• Mr Burroughs writes enthusiastically about apomorphine treatment but I do not feel his enthusiasm is justified in terms of published results. → by published results

Okay, there are a lot of letters in the collection and Burroughs himself used “in terms of” only four (or five) times, which isn’t too bad. However, each use is an echt Guardianism, so Burroughs was undoubtedly a victim of the Conqueror Term, like millions of others, then and now. But it isn’t only English-speakers who can be victims of the Conqueror Term: it has infected usage in French too. This is from a speech by the new French president Emmanuel Macron:

… c’est ensuite les routes des trafics multiples qui nécessitent des réponses aussi en termes de sécurité et de coordination régionale … – Emmanuel Macron empêtré dans une folle polémique, Mediaguinee, 10/vii/2017.

… it is then the roads of multiple trafficking which also require answers in terms of security and regional coordination … – French President Emmanuel Macron is in the middle of a social media firestorm, Vox, 10/vii/2017.

The French and English can be shortened in the same way:

• des réponses aussi en termes de sécurité → des réponses aussi en sécurité
• answers in terms of security → in security

Macron, as you’d expect, is part of the Hive Mind too. He and many other Francophones have succumbed to the Conqueror Term, as you can see from these graphs at Google nGrams (“en termes du” behaves in an interesting way):

En termes de

En termes du

But there are vermicides in French too:

Attention, on confond souvent la signification de “en termes de”. Cette expression signifie « dans le vocabulaire de », « dans le langage de » et ne veut pas dire « en ce qui concerne », « en matière de », « sur le plan de ». Cette confusion est sûrement due à l’expression anglaise “in terms of” qui elle a le sens de “en matière de”. Faut-il écrire “en termes de” ou “en terme de” ?, La Langue Française, Nicolas Le Roux, août 31, 2015.

Take care: people often confuse the meaning of “en termes de”. This expression means “in the vocabulary of”, “in the language of”, and does not mean “in what concerns”, “in the matter of”, “after the form of”. This confusion is surely due to the English expression “in terms of”, which has the sense of “in the matter of”. (My translation, so not reliable)

Things were worse than I thought. Pero… ¡La lucha continúa!


Elsewhere other-posted:

Paradigms Loused
The Conqueror Worm — the title of this incendiary intervention is of course a reference to the famous poem by Edgar Allan In Terms Of Poe

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Spike U Like?

Keeping out of the Hive Mind is an endless struggle. The Hive evolves, constantly throwing out toxic tentacles of glottic grotesqueness to enwrap and entwine the unwary mind. However, “in terms of” is an old and familiar tentacle. It’s easy to spot and avoid. New tentacles can be trickier, particularly when they come in cosy colloquial guise, like this:

Perrine’s brother is one of 36 people killed in Baltimore so far this month, already the highest homicide count for May since 1999. But while homicides are spiking, arrests have plunged more than 50 percent compared to last year. […]

Baltimore was seeing a slight rise in homicides this year even before Gray’s death April 19. But the 36 homicides so far in May is a major spike, after 22 in April, 15 in March, 13 in February and 23 in January.

Non-fatal shootings are spiking as well. So far in May there have been 91 — 58 of them in the Western District. […] Rawlings-Blake said her office is “examining” the relationship between the homicide spike and the dwindling arrest rate. – Baltimore residents fearful amid rash of homicides, The Washington Times, 28/5/2015.

“Spike” is a metaphor drawn from the behaviour of a line on a graph. When a variable rises sharply, reaches a brief maximum, and then falls sharply, it looks like an inverted V. A spike, in other words:

A spike

A spike

Not a spike

Not a spike


A sharp rise cannot be a spike on its own. It has to be followed immediately or almost immediately by a sharp fall. The rise and fall have to be more or less balanced. That’s why it’s nonsensical to say “homicides are spiking”. The rise in murders might level off and establish a new average. Or the murder rate might return slowly to the old level. You can’t announce a spike while a variable is still rising, so every time “spike” is used as a verb or a noun in the article quoted above, it’s being used incorrectly.

But the same article supplies a word that is correct:

At a news conference Wednesday, Rawlings-Blake said there were “a lot of reasons why we’re having a surge in violence.”

A surge can be identified while it is happening. Violence in Baltimore is surging or rocketing or shooting up or rising sharply. It is not “spiking”. But why is this simple metaphor being misused? I think it’s because “spike” conveys a sense of urgency and excitement. It gives journalists and other members of the hive-mind a buzz. They like the connotation, so they forget about the denotation.