Skip to content

Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

failed state

(1990’s | academese? journalese? | “social collapse,” “anarchy,” “unrest”)

This term attempts to denote a single phenomenon, but each manifestation looks different from all the others. It is roughly defined as a government no longer able to provide what you might call basic services — roads, education, law enforcement, etc. — or the nation ruled by such a government. That’s the carrot-centric way to look at it; the big stick approach says it is a government that no longer maintains a monopoly on violence. Failure may be caused by civil war, corruption, insurgency, economic depression, or any shock to the system. The first uses in LexisNexis date from 1992, including an article in the journal Foreign Policy by Gerald B. Helman and Steven R. Ratner that has been cited as bringing the phrase to general attention. (I didn’t find anything to suggest that they didn’t invent the expression, but I didn’t look very hard.) Somalia was the first example to spring to everyone’s lips, with Haiti a close second; Rwanda and Bosnia were not far behind. Pundits may disagree on whether any given nation is a failed state or not, but most of them happily agree that there are a lot of failed states, which is handy in case a large western nation feels like limbering up an invasion force. States that look like they might fail any day now are called “fragile states.” (Here’s an SAT analogy for you: “fragile state” is to “failed state” as “food insecurity” is to “hunger.”) One commentator urges the absurdity of referring to states as “failed” that had never been successful, or functioned at all.

Experienced pundit-watchers will note that most failed states reside in what we like to call the third world, and there’s no doubt that the phrase is every bit as paternalistic as it sounds. The more deleterious the effect of previous western interference in the state in question, the less polite it is to bring it up — just as it’s not cricket to observe that first world nations routinely show shocking ineptitude in their efforts to impose effective governments on third world nations. The phrase long since emerged from scholarly lingo to become common currency among politicians and bureaucrats, who are in the best position to send the marines to restore order, or at least grab some of the goods. If enough Americans and Europeans (aw, hell, let’s throw in the Japanese and Australians, but not the Chinese and Russians!) think you’re a failed state, you can expect bombing runs or foreign soldiers spraying bullets. So it’s not a term to throw around lightly.

If “failed” turns out to be a bit unsavory when applied to nations, maybe we can make room for other uses of the adjective. I thought of it only this morning when I walked into the kitchen and realized we had forgotten to refrigerate, or even cover, a partly eaten mango yesterday: voilĂ , a failed mango. We’ve all been to failed parties. If your computer refuses to yield up your hard-entered data, you have a failed hard drive. As a longtime devotee of Monty Python, my thoughts can hardly fail to turn to failed parrots. It’s much more poetic and pathetic than referring to any old botch as a “fail,” as these kids today do.

June 26, 2016: It occurred to me that “Failed State” might also be the name of a university, as in, “Yeah, I went to Failed State.” I’ve been trying to come up with a team nickname for the school. After entertaining Second Bananas, Lieutenants, and Albatrosses, I’ve decided to go with Underdogs. Those who prefer the collective-noun-as-team-name formula that became standard after my childhood — which has penetrated the NBA but not the NFL or MLB (professional soccer led the way, as I recall) — can use Underdog.


Tags: , , , , , , , , , ,

%d bloggers like this: