The New York Times

September 18, 2005
Katrina Words

The hurricane disaster called Katrina had the suddenness of a catastrophe and inflicted the damage of a calamity, but the loss of life caused by its flooding is best described as a cataclysm, "deluge, a washing away, a watery doom."

How to describe the long-trapped residents of New Orleans and other Gulf Coast cities - the dazed and the furious, the hungry and homeless - quickly became a matter of controversy. "Refugee has become the most popular word to describe the victims," The Baltimore Sun reported, a word appearing more often than the unfamiliar evacuee and the unspecific survivor.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson promptly objected. "To see them as refugees," he said, "is to see them as other than Americans," and charged that such a noun, applied to the mainly black sufferers, was "inaccurate, unfair and racist." He had a point; although a refugee can be defined as "a person who seeks refuge," it has carried the connotation since 1685 of "one who seeks refuge or asylum in a foreign country to escape religious or political persecution." Those swimming or walking to higher ground or sweltering in makeshift aid stations presented the appearance of refugees seen so often on television; this explained the initial use of the description, but appearance is not reality.

President Bush, who had been carefully calling them "displaced citizens," agreed with the objection of many blacks: "The people we're talking about are not refugees. They are Americans." Jocelyn Noveck of The Associated Press reported that The Boston Globe and The Washington Post dropped the word, while The A.P. and The New York Times did not. "The A.P. is using the term refugee," said its executive editor, Kathleen Carroll, "where appropriate to the sweep and scope of the effects of this historic natural disaster on a vast number of our citizens."

In my judgment, refugee is neither racist nor ethnic nor in any way demeaning. But in its primary sense, it does connote "fleeing to another country to escape persecution." Roberta Cohen, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, defined refugees as "people who cross borders to escape violence, civil wars and human rights violations - because they do not have the protection of their own country. A natural disaster is not considered a cause of refugee status." The United Nations has a term for people uprooted by natural disasters or unprotected by national authorities: "internally displaced people." "I.D.P.'s remain in their own country," Cohen said.

I don't go for the bureaucratic initialese, but also resist applying refugee to people who live in the U.S. Homeless, though currently accurate, implies permanent rootlessness. Displaced citizens does not cover the many victims who are not citizens, and evacuees is a highbrow concoction. My choices: Katrina survivors overall and, specifically for the inundated of New Orleans, flood victims.

The name Katrina, a Greek variant of Catherine, was selected by the World Meteorological Organization. "The use of names for tropical cyclones contributes to public awareness and alertness," states the W.M.O., which agreed to alternating male names at the request of the U.S. Other names planned for 2005 are Philippe, Rita, Stan, Tammy, Vince and Wilma.


When President Ronald Reagan shocked the fainthearted by saying, "I've had it up to my keister," a lawyer in Seattle wrote to him in the White House enclosing a column on the etymology of the word by my fellow word maven, James Kilpatrick.

John G. Roberts, as a 28-year-old aide in the presidential counsel's office, decided against forwarding it to the leader of the free world, explaining to the chief counsel, "Frankly, I've had it up to my keister with newspaper columns about an expression fairly common to those of us reared in the Midwest." He went on to observe: "It is interesting how familiarity with slang phrases often varies among different parts of our country. In this case, excuse the bad pun, but I suppose it may depend on where one was reared."

I, too, wrote a column at that time about the derivation of keister - a borrowing, through Yiddish, of the German Kiste, "chest" - with its original meaning of "satchel, handbag" and its current meaning of "fanny, rump, bottom, tush, can, buttocks, backside" as well as the British "bum" and the French "derri╦re." (The bureaucratic cognoscenti prefer "posterior," as in the initialese slogan C.Y.A., meaning "cover your posterior." The "a" stands for a synonym not permitted in The Times, as an admiring salute to a diktat by the former executive editor, A.M. Rosenthal, who thought it was in bad taste and boldly asserted his stylistic prerogative. But I divagate.)

The Roberts rear-ending memo was unearthed by a Times reporter, Ann Kornblut, in the run-up to the Senate confirmation hearings regarding his nomination to the Supreme Court.

A word of advice to the putative chief justice: when using a pun in a judicial opinion, do not write "excuse the bad pun." Remember, there are no "bad" puns - all plays on words are good, and the louder the groans they elicit, the better. And never forget, do not insult your audience by calling attention to the coming wordplay.

The pardon-my-pun flag says to the listener or reader, "You're probably too dim-witted to catch this, so I'm pointing it out to you beforehand."

I do, however, commend the grammatically sensitive nominee for his choice of rear rather than raise, following the strict admonition that "you raise cattle but you rear children." Sad to say, that manner-born rule is now more honored in the breeches than the observance.

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