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A more positive understanding of protest

The events of a long hot summer prompt research into some of the vocabulary of public gatherings. 

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Supporters of Turkish President Tayyip Erdogan wave Turkish flags during a pro-government protest in Cologne, Germany.

Thilo Schmuelgen/Reuters

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There is such a thing as too much history, and we are having it.

That line floated up recently from the deep recesses of memory. It was an aperçu from a perhaps equally tumultuous time as today. I was just beginning to follow what our teachers called “current events” and to suspect that the grownups did not have it all figured out. 

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More recently, we had a week in which it seemed that the first sound out of the kitchen clock radio every morning was a recording of gunfire somewhere. Then came reports of a coup under way in Turkey. President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan called for his supporters to take to the streets to protest. They did, in their legions. 

We are at a moment when much of “the news” consists of public events, e.g., mass gatherings to protest, mourn, celebrate, and even, occasionally, to deliberate – if convention halls full of people in funny hats can be construed as “deliberative bodies.” 

Coup is a short French word meaning “blow” or “strike” or “stroke.” The Online Etymology Dictionary traces it all the way back to the Greek kolaphos, “a blow, buffet, punch, slap.” In English, coup is almost always short for coup d’état. That phrase very literally means “blow of state” or “stroke of the state,” as the dictionary has it: “Technically any sudden, decisive political act but popularly restricted to the overthrow of a government.” 

After the Turkish coup failed, Mr. Erdoğan “made a brief public appearance amid a phalanx of heavily-armed bodyguards,” as the Daily Mail reported. 

Phalanx is another Greek-derived word we’re seeing a lot of lately. At the convention in Cleveland, “[A] phalanx of cops on bikes wearing headlamps circled the central square next to the Soldiers and Sailors Monument.” With a less technical usage, a Daily Kos headline said, “CNN hires phalanx of contributors to praise Donald Trump.” 

A phalanx is “A large group of people, animals, or things often placed close together,” according to Merriam-Webster’s “simple definition.” The dictionary notes that the word originally meant “log” but has come to refer either to a military formation – a group of soldiers standing shoulder to shoulder – or to a bone in a finger or toe. 

The metaphor seems bidirectional: Bones of hands and feet work together like an effective military formation, and a group of soldiers works together like the fingers on a hand. Phalanxes of cops have been much deployed lately keeping “pro” and “anti” protesters apart. 

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But aren’t protesters by definition “anti”? Not necessarily. Protest is rooted in Latin words meaning “witnessing forth” – from the same root as testimony. From about 1400, the word meant “avowal, pledge, solemn declaration,” according to the Online Etymology Dictionary. Only much later did it come to mean “statement of disapproval.” 

This may indeed be a time when we’re having too much history. But as the long hot summer wears on, I’ll be giving some thought to the positive protests I can register. 


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