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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

zero tolerance

(late 1980’s | bureaucratese | “no exceptions,” “strict enforcement,” “to the full extent of the law”)

A bit of regulatory history, if you please. This term arose in the 1950’s and 1960’s as a way of saying there was no permissible minimum amount for certain chemicals, specifically in processed food. The phrase was often applied to pesticides; a federal law called the Delaney Clause (“No additive shall be deemed to be safe if it is found to induce cancer when ingested by man or laboratory animals or if it is found, after tests which are appropriate for the evaluation of the safety of food additives, to induce cancer in man or animals.”) hit the books in 1958 and established a “zero tolerance” — i.e., any measurable amount is too much — for carcinogenic food additives. That definition held up until the 1980’s. Since it referred to specific chemicals, the construction “a zero tolerance (for pesticide X)” was not unusual, even though it sounds very odd today.

From the standpoint of linguistic evolution, the interesting thing about this usage is that it rests at least partly on the third definition of “tolerance” given in Webster’s Third: “allowable deviation from a standard.” But the notion of no margin for error or no leeway is of course what survives in our latter-day use of the phrase. Another holdover: the association between this particular expression and the regulation of chemicals. In the early 1980’s, the U.S. Navy adopted a policy of “zero tolerance” toward illegal drug use, meaning no excuses or second chances. A few years later, late in Ronald Reagan’s second term, anti-drug rhetoric and enforcement surged, following the First Lady’s “Just say no” campaign. “Zero tolerance” became high-stakes federal policy, permitting officials to seize boats, cars, etc. if even small amounts of an illegal drug were found, with the presumption that the owner must prove innocence to get it back — contrary to longstanding legal principles. (The fact that the Iran-Contra scandal and a recession were both in full swing by 1988 may have suggested to Reagan’s handlers the wisdom of fanning public anger over a completely different problem.) After a couple of yachts were seized, the policy was hastily reconsidered. But the new punitive usage obscured the old sense, so that the phrase became a simple stand-in for “we absolutely will not tolerate x.” Tolerance is now understood to refer to the act of permitting or putting up with, not as a deviation from a standard. They are closely related, but they feel different.

Today, the term is applied to many, many undesirable things. From the first two months of 2011, LexisNexis disgorged the following zero-tolerance campaigns, great and small: illegal drug use (still the most popular target), drunk driving, underage drinking, weapons in school, bullying, hazing, anti-Semitism, racial epithets, domestic violence, and prostitution. That’s not a comprehensive list. But it shows how ordinary, how ubiquitous the phrase has become — and how much we take the concept for granted. It sounds satisfying. There are many actions that nearly everyone recognizes as harmful to others, and we are always tempted to believe that relentless law enforcement will eliminate them. Who wouldn’t be against “swift, certain, and just punishment” (Ronald Reagan’s phrase)? Who doesn’t want to make sure that vicious criminals can’t harm innocent people?

In most times and places, it quickly becomes clear that such procrustean, draconian punishments may hobble the malefactors, but they also hurt a lot of people who haven’t really done anything wrong, and such policies are moderated, if only implicitly. America’s record over the last twenty years has been spotty, however, and zero-tolerance codes have gained ground, particularly in school districts and in laws directed against users of illegal drugs. I can see how the sheer simplicity of zero-tolerance policies makes them attractive. You break the rules, you get nailed, and it’s a perfectly mechanical, incorruptible meting out of punishment — the same for everybody every time. Except when it isn’t. The wheels of our justice system do not grind as fine as they might, and over time people with influence find ways to walk away, and people without, however harmless, get socked with disproportionate, crippling penalties. Let’s not forget — we have a legal system in the first place because the talion yielded the wrong answer too often. But some of us can’t see past theoretical efficiency to practical consequences. Until you try it, unyielding application of the law seems like a great idea.


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