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Who bears the responsibility?
Apr 10, 2014
When Flight M370 was first reported missing, we heard several theories regarding its fate. Whenever  hijacking was mentioned as a possibility, journalists pointed out that no one had taken credit.
Here’s an example from the March 17 Free Press: “The problem with the hijacking theory is no group has come forward to take credit for the airplane’s disappearance.”
Another example: “Still no credible group has taken credit for the disappearance” (Free Press, March 19).
Credit, from the Old Italian, credito, from the Latin, creditum (something entrusted) has 12 dictionary meanings. All refer to something positive. Meaning 5 refers to “taking credit.” It reads: “Approval for some act, ability, or quality; praise.”
Since nothing is praiseworthy about a hijacking, it would seem that responsibility and not credit is the word required.
Responsibility entered Old English as respons. We took it from Old French but it originated in the Latin, responsum/respondere (to respond). It means, “accountability legally or ethically.” A further definition is, “Being the source or cause of something.”
The Times of London wouldn’t use responsibility in lieu of take credit. In its Style and Usage Guide, we find, “People bear responsibility; things do not. Storms are not responsible for damage; they cause it. Avoid the phrase ‘The IRA claimed responsibility for the bombing.’ Say instead ‘The IRA admitted causing the bombing.’”
Although the Times doesn’t buy the idea that responsible can mean, “being a source or cause,” most dictionaries do, including Oxford.
I checked other stylebooks — Canadian Press Stylebook; The Longman Practical Stylist; The Canadian Style (the federal government usage guide); The Los Angeles Times Stylebook; A Manual of Style (University of Chicago Press, the guide used by most book publishers). None of these sources deals with responsibility/credit/cause.
These are serious omissions because when reporters talk of “taking credit” for something like a hijacking, they are employing the worst possible usage they could find.
Sadly, the credit/responsibility confusion is but one example of the imprecise language so often used today by professional communicators.
Alibi and excuse are another example. These two are misused so often that some modern dictionaries now accept them as synonyms. They are not synonyms.
Alibi is Latin for “elsewhere.” When an accused person seeks to show he is innocent because he wasn’t there when the crime was committed, his explanation is called an alibi in law.
The noun excuse, not a legal term, is a plea or reason used to gain pardon or forgiveness for some deed.
Fowler has this to say about alibi/excuse: “Alibi is a Latin word meaning ‘elsewhere.’ That it should have come to be used as a pretentious synonym for excuse is a striking example of the harm that can be done by slipshod extension. Perhaps the vogue of detective stories is responsible for the corruption.”
Fowler adds that if this misuse continues, English will eventually lack a word for the “true meaning of alibi.”
It appears we already lack words that give the true meaning of responsible and credit and the media must shoulder the major share of responsibility for that.