Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Dr. Goodword on Swiftboating

SwiftboatMy definition of the verb to swiftboat as “To powerfully blindside and undermine someone with false or misleading attacks on their character or background” resulted in an unusually heavy load of complaints. Some accused me of political bias, others simply pointed out that the basis of the swift boat ads against Senator Kerry in 2004 were either true or were not proven false. Since it is always interesting to watch new words find their way into our vocabulary, I thought I would share my response with everyone.

After reviewing my research, I couldn’t find anything gravely at fault in the definition (though I have ameneded it slightly). Many apparently thought I was defining the swift boat incident of the 2004 election itself. I wasn’t. I was defining the verb (not even the noun) to swiftboat and even chose to close the gap between the two words to make that clear. Nothing in my defintion bears on the truthfulness of the swift boat ads of the 2004 presidential campaign. I only wrote about the meaning of the verb to swiftboat today, 2008.

Since only the very unreliable Wiktionary and Urban Dictionary had even ventured a definition for this word, I did most of my research on the uses of the word on the Web. I searched the word swiftboated to make sure I had only verbs in my sample. I tried to determine what the writers of sentences like these had in mind using the verb:

  • How McCain will be Swiftboated.
  • They swiftboated the Gold Star mom on the news by questioning her credibility when she refused to back off with her antiwar protest….
  • Stéphane Dion gets swiftboated by an oily Peter Puck.
  • Fox suggests swiftboat author being swiftboated himself.
  • Science swiftboated in ‘Expelled’.

I could not find room to believe these and hundreds of other authors meant “had the truth told about them” in using this term.

In all the related articles the word was being used negatively—whether truthfully or not. The authors of all these web texts intended that something bad was done to whomever was swiftboated. Regardless of whether the statements are true or not, the intent of the writer is to denote that truth was subverted, not exposed. I don’t see any other interpretation.

The meanings of words begin changing as soon as they are used. Disease is no longer semantically related to ease, business no longer has any business with busy, atonement is unrelated today to one. I think the meaning of the verb to swiftboat may still be in a state of flux but I only did this word because it seems to be stabilizing and gaining great popularity. For sure its meaning now is independent of the meaning of its origin.

One Response to “Dr. Goodword on Swiftboating”

  1. Benjamin Bruce Says:

    Apostrophe police here! Just noticed there was an unneeded one on the last sentence. Good article though!

Leave a Reply