Earlier this year in March, on Neal Horsley was arrested for “making terroristic threats” against Elton John. The New York Daily News ran the story from The Associated Press using the word terroristic in the headline. Now sometimes you hear a word and think that it is in some sense “wrong,” which leads to you not liking it. That’s the effect terroristic has on me. Why, even the WordPress spell checker tells me it’s wrong. On the other hand, Microsoft Word, on the other hand, has no problem letting it go and so maybe I am being a little harsh in wanting to deny the poor word some form of existence.
Yet it feels odd. When I hear that someone, “made a terroristic threat,” I want to argue that “made a terror threat” would work just as well. Or even “made a terrorist threat” wouldn’t be a bad thing.
So why does it feel so weird? Why am I having such a hard time accepting it? Is it just too new and I’m too old?
Well, according to the OED, the word makes an appearance back in 1850 in Bentley’s Miscellany, Volume XXVIII, p. 407, where we find “This was the Government styled ‘terroristical’ by the Austrians!” Twenty-five years later, in his gripping pot-boiler, Gaii institutionum juris civilis commentarii, Edward Poste wrote, “This terroristic law… was not abrogated till the time of Justinian.”
Notice that the words are used both attributively and predicatively, so the word really seems to be a fair and flexible adjective, able to skip around like any other happy little descriptor. And in 1972, the word appears as a regular “-ly” adverb in an April edition of Economic and Political Weekly, based in Mumbai;
Consisting almost exclusively of guerilla squads, they [sc. the Naxals] moved secretively and acted terroristically.
Adjective to adverb. Well, that pretty much wraps it up for my original notion that it isn’t a word, when in fact it has been around since the mid-19th century and has behaved like a regular adjective.
The uncertainty about the reality of the word may come from frequency – or lack thereof. And when it comes to frequency of a word, there are a number of sources I tap into. On this occasion, I opted for the Corpus of Contemporary American English, a splendid online resource for those of us who are not full-time academics with access to specialized (and often expensive) databases. It’s based at Brigham Young University and is one of six created by Professor Mark Davies. Adjectives like monumental and herculean spring to mind when describing the amount of time and effort that has clearly gone into these corpora, which may seem cliched but in this case apposite.
One of the valuable features of the COCA is the ability to be able to search for a word’s frequency by part of speech. My original discomfort with terroristic was because I believed that terror and terrorist could quite happily be used as adjectives preceding threat without the need for a “new” one. So using COCA, I tracked down the relative frequencies of use of the three possible phrases; terror threat, terroristic threat, and terrorist threat.
TERROR THREAT(S): 68 (25)
TERRORIST THREAT(S): 267 (193)
TERRORISTIC THREAT: 4 (16)
See how low terroristic scores? Pretty pathetic really. It’s no surprise that it sounds “odd” because statistically it is! Take a look at how it stacks up against terror and terrorist in total i.e. as all parts of speech:
So although I turned out to be wrong – and I really, really thought terroristic was a newly coined error word – at least I got a lesson on how much the frequency of a word plays in its being accepted as a real word.