Wednesday, February 25, 2009

time bomb

While many clichés overtake terms’ original meanings in the public consciousness, it can be reassuring to see those basic definitions show up again, as they help show how misguided buzzwords can be.

On February 24, 2009, the Associated Press (AP) reported that a recent explosion in Cairo, Egypt, had involved a time bomb:

The crude bomb that killed a French teenager and injured 24 others at a famous Cairo bazaar was made of gunpowder and detonated by a washing machine timer, according to a crime lab report.

One day later, however, the same news agency used the term ‘time bomb’ in a more abstract and sensationalistic context when reporting on another recent attack—one involving no actual bomb at all, but rather a chimpanzee that had seriously injured a woman in the U.S. the previous week:

The founder of a primate rescue sanctuary says she warned a Connecticut woman years ago that her chimpanzee was a “ticking time bomb.”

To be fair, in the second instance AP was quoting April Truitt, who runs a primate rescue centre, rather than choosing to use the term itself. Nevertheless, by citing the quote in an article’s headline (Sanctuary had warned that chimp was ‘ticking time bomb’) and never challenging it, the news agency perpetuated the misuse of the term.

A time bomb is designed to detonate at a specific moment. Yet, when the term is used metaphorically to describe situations, animals or people (and it seems everything is fair game, from sick workforces to school violence, from a prisoner release to hiring illegal aliens), it invariably ignores that detail of the definition.

That is to say, while the chimpanzee may have already posed a grave danger, its attack was certainly not pre-set to take place on February 16, 2009.

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