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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(2000’s | bureaucratese | “native land,” “fatherland,” “realm”)

Thanks to my old buddy Charles for proposing this week’s expression. A winner, as always.

Your homeland is where you’re from. It isn’t so much the meaning that has changed over time as the way we use the term. Probably the most decisive impact of 9/11 (see also “wake-up call”) on the language has been the ascent of this word concurrent with striking changes in how it is used. Safire gave a good account of its pre-1980 history, explicating the word’s disparate roots in Zionist aspiration and Nazi barbarism.

When I was young, your homeland was where you were from, but usually with a twist: you didn’t actually live there. It wasn’t your homeland until you left it, generally against your will. This connotation was not invariable; occasionally one’s homeland coincided with one’s residence. But far more often, the word evoked exile. Maybe you wanted to go back; maybe you didn’t — but the quickest way to acquire a homeland was to leave it. The term was used on a large scale, as in the case of Palestinians dispossessed in 1948, or just as readily to talk about a single person. One variant use came from South Africa, where “homeland” meant a place white people created to send black people, roughly analogous to an Indian reservation in the U.S. Not a place you are forced out of but a place you are forced into. Here the choice of words seems to have been straightforwardly Orwellian, describing a remote, alien place as “home,” and hoping no one would notice. Homelands double-plus good!

After 9/11, “homeland” stopped denoting the place we wanted to send immigrants back to and started being the place we wanted to keep them out of. At least in official circles, it swiftly became customary to use the word to refer to the U.S.A., specifically as a place to fortify and defend. A couple other significant linguistic changes went along with that. One was the change from possessive pronoun to definite article; now you hear “the homeland” a lot, whereas the exile was much more likely to talk about “my” or “our” homeland. Wikipedia, of all places, alerts us to the sinister implications of this change. Another, even more decisive aftereffect of the terrorist attacks was the apparently permanent yoking of “security” and “homeland,” whether combined simply into a common compound noun or more pervasively as the name of a very large federal agency, which may in time replace the Defense Department as the largest federal program designed to create more danger and risk all over the world, including right here on our shores, in order to make sure we continue to need very large federal agencies to protect us against danger and risk. I don’t mean to single out DOD; many federal agencies share this responsibility, some of which, like the CIA, have awe-inspiring records of failure.

“Homeland” has become more common mostly due to the aforementioned federal agency, though it wasn’t rare before. Now it’s the title of a popular television series, so it has reached a lofty plateau indeed. “Homeland security” draws heavily on the success of the phrase “national security,” which became ubiquitous before I was born. The two phrases should mean something different, after all. “Homeland security” ought to be more tightly focused on preventing invasion or hostile action on U.S. soil, whereas “national security” casts a wider net; incidents all over the world are easily understood to affect national security, which is affected not just by military maneuvers but by the economy, contagious disease, etc., etc. But I can’t see much difference in practice. The security-mongers forever remind us that Islamic fundamentalists in Iraq and Syria are at least a potential threat to American cities, and that stopping them over here is a matter of stopping them over there. In the case of Ebola, to take a recent non-combat example, commentators show no reticence discussing it in terms of “national security” or “homeland security.” It’s all the same conspiracy.

“Homeland” has filled a niche of sorts, because “fatherland” is too German, “motherland” too Russian, and “native land” too archaic. (Why is it you can say “mother country” but not “father country”?) I can’t imagine its rise has made anyone feel more secure.


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