American News

The Daily Devil’s Dictionary: What We “Want”

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Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi © Frederic Legrand – COMEO

February 14, 2018 12:32 EDT

State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert gives us a lesson in what the US wants in Egypt.

It may seem odd to define want, which is one of the first words any English-speaking child acquires when learning to speak. But when used in the context of diplomacy and political analysis, want is a verb that requires a different level of understanding than that of a hungry child.

In an article about the US attitude toward Egypt as a prelude to what is clearly a “sham” presidential election, Al Jazeera quotes the US State Department’s spokesperson, Heather Nauert: “We want countries [like Egypt] to hold free and fair elections. That’s something we consistently bring up.”

Here is today’s 3D definition:


Vaguely hope for an event without any real expectations and possibly a fear that it might even happen

Contextual note

In the actual quote, Nauert avoids specifying that she is referring to Egypt. She prefers to invoke a general principle, reinforced by the claim of bringing it up “consistently.” This is tantamount to protesting that “you should remember that we actually do have ideals somewhere in the background, even if we believe it’s unnecessary to apply them to any real situation.”

As the article goes on to say, US policy under Donald Trump has encouraged what it describes as “[Egyptian President Abdel Fattah al-] Sisi’s ‘brute force’ strategy.” This “has led to mass displacements, civilian deaths, the erasing of entire villages and the destruction of an agricultural economy.”

Under Barack Obama, the US initially had to overcome its embarrassment at what was clearly an undemocratic military coup in 2013. Once President Sisi had consolidated his power, the Obama administration took a position of merely “tolerating” his reprehensible actions out of necessity, although it didn’t take long for the State Department to start feeling comfortable with the sanguinary leader. Just five months after the coup that ended Mohamed Morsi’s presidency, US Secretary of State John Kerry proclaimed, “the roadmap is being carried out to the best of our perception.”

Trump, on the other hand, has repeatedly praised Sisi, who graciously returned the favor. “I see that President Trump is managing foreign policy in our region. Can I say in short that the United States has regained its weight in the region and its role, and is preserving the security of the region and its countries?”

So, democracy would be wonderful, but why upset a great friendship?

In other words, there are things the US government “wants” but can easily do without.

Linguistic note

As this quote from the Book of Daniel — “You have been weighed in the balance and found wanting” — demonstrates, to “want” originally meant to “lack” rather than to “desire.” Gradually the idea of desire overcame and practically eliminated the original meaning, which came into English via Old Norse (vant = lacking, deficient).

Given the drift of history, this makes sense. The entire culture of the English-speaking world over the past three or four centuries has moved toward the “pursuit of happiness,” in other words, seeking the means of satisfying one’s desires, even when there is no lack. And for Madison Avenue in particular, especially when there is no lack. Thus the original meaning of the verb has virtually disappeared from current use and we are literally left wanting.

*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Fair Observer’s editorial policy.

Photo Credit: Frederic Legrand – COMEO /

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