Jeremy Butterfield Editorial

Making words work for you

Scottish Independence: Scaremongering versus dream-mongering

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“Scaremongering”: a rhetorical ruse

“Scaremongering, scaremongering”. Whenever anyone tried to confront the Scottish king-this-side-of-the-water with the hard facts of reality, that was his, or the SNP’s, answer. It’s a tried-and-tested way of discrediting whatever the other person is saying, of “terminating the argument with extreme prejudice”. It is hard not to admit, though, that he is very good at rhetoric and verbal prestidigitation. His use of the word “scaremongering” is a case in point: he was artfully making use of an imbalance in the English language (I mean “English” in the sense of the language, not the nationality, in case anyone was wondering). It has no opposite, but in order to counter certain delirious imaginings it really ought to have, in order to fill what linguists call a “lexical gap”. I suggest “dream-mongering” or even “fantasy-mongering“. Please use either freely and often.

What’s a monger when it’s at home?

The noun monger is as ancient as the English (British?) language itself. It goes back to Old English and has cognates in Old Icelandic and Old High German. It means basically “a trader or dealer in a specified commodity”, and is best known to ordinary folk nowadays in its compounds fishmonger, ironmonger, and, for foodies, cheesemonger. Apart from those humdrum and innocuous words, however, –monger as a suffix has a long history, generally in the lexicon of abuse: foolmonger (1593), “one who trades on the credulity of fools” (how appropriate); mass-monger (1550), a disparaging term for a Roman Catholic; ballad-monger (1598), “one who writes in cheap or slanderous verse”.

Monger, monger on the wa’, whae’s the sleekitest o’ theim a’?

It was not until 1928, however, that monger morphed into an independent verb (though scaremongering is older–1907). Looking at a major online database of current English, I find that the verbal form –mongering occurs most often in the following combinations (ignore the inconsistent hyphenation): warmongering, fear-mongering, scare-mongering, doom-mongering, hate-mongering (the “Yes” campaign did a lot of that), rumour-mongering, conspiracy-mongering, panic-mongering.
So, full rhetorical marks to the ex-First Minister and his acolytes for using a word that gets a gut reaction (or even lower down for some people). It just sounds nasty and unappetizing, rhyming or half-rhyming as it does with hungerKim-Jong-Salmond and fungus. And its definition is just as negative: “spreading frightening or ominous reports or rumours”. But what if the reports are likely to be true, or at least plausible, as they often are in this debate? It is as if the SNP are claiming the unique ability to unerringly see into the future, which is a rare gift indeed. In any case, the word scaremongering is so tainted by its negative associations that, unwittingly, people have an emotional reaction and automatically discard as untrue whatever is so described.


Author: Jeremy Butterfield

Editor of Fowler's Dictionary of Modern English Usage. Writer, wordsmith, copywriter, copy-editor and lover of words. I provide editing, web copywriting, and marketing copywriting services in the Central Belt of Scotland, including Stirling, Glasgow, Edinburgh and surrounding areas, as well as throughout the UK. You can find me on Twitter @JezzB2.

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