Not for the first time, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has become an object of media derision over a language question. The word-loving secretary is always a tempting target, but this time — as in the past — journalists might have done better to hold the jokes. Words are the media’s stock in trade, after all. It’s not such a bad thing for a public official to take them seriously, even when he turns out to be wrong.

Of course, it was amusing when, at a Pentagon briefing last Monday, Mr. Rumsfeld took it upon himself to end the pesky Iraqi insurgency by the simple tactic of declaring that there were no insurgents in Iraq and never had been. He had experienced an “epiphany” about it over the weekend, he said.

“I thought to myself, ‘You know, it gives them a greater legitimacy than they seem to merit,’ ” he said, referring to the use of the word insurgents for Iraq’s violent opposition. “I think that you can have a legitimate insurgency in a country that has popular support and has a cohesiveness and a legitimate gripe. These people don’t have a legitimate gripe.”

Reporters who spend their time writing about the insurgency — insurgent suicide attacks and insurgent kidnappings are all in a day’s work — reacted with mirth to the idea that it could be extinguished with a word change. They also chuckled later in the briefing when Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Gen. Peter Pace stumbled twice trying to avoid the I-word. “I have to use the word ‘insurgent’ because I can’t think of a better word right now,” he said sheepishly. But Mr. Rumsfeld was ready: ” ‘Enemies of the legitimate Iraqi government’ — how’s that?” he said.

The ELIG jokes began at once, joining the GSAVE jokes that flourished this summer when Mr. Rumsfeld tried unsuccessfully to get the term “war on terror” changed to “global struggle against violent extremism.” They haven’t stopped yet.

But the sobering truth is that in both instances the secretary had a point, even though his alternatives were risibly wonkish and he proved to be off-base in his understanding of the word insurgent.

In the case of GSAVE, he was absolutely right to want to discard the logic-mangling phrase “war on terror.” Terror properly defined means an intense, overpowering fear. It is not an enemy; it is what an enemy causes. Terrorism is equally inappropriate as an object of war. As U.S. Marine Gen. Wallace Gregson has said, “Terrorism is a weapon, it’s a tool of war. This is no more a war on terrorism than World War II was a war on submarines.” War on terrorists makes sense; “struggle against violent extremism” is even better.

In the end, that debate was rendered moot when President George W. Bush said nobody had checked with him about any word change, and he didn’t want one. So “war on terror” it remains, but not because Mr. Rumsfeld was wrong. It was just that no one was willing to replace a pithy phrase with either an ugly acronym or a yawn-inducing mouthful.

The secretary was, however, wrong about insurgents, as reporters were quick to point out. According to several dictionaries, including Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of Law, an insurgent is a person who rises in revolt against civil authority or an established government, especially one not recognized as a belligerent. That exactly describes the people in Iraq who Mr. Rumsfeld thinks deserve a less favorable term. The term is not, in fact, favorable. It is neutral, implying neither legitimacy nor illegitimacy.

The ELIG phrase is neutral, too, and has the advantage of being country-specific, but it has the same disadvantage as GSAVE: It will never work in a news story. So why use it, when “insurgent” gets the job done?

Mr. Rumsfeld’s ear for nuance betrayed him this time. But in a wider sense, he was right to air his discomfort with a particular word. Such discussions are valuable. They go on all the time in newsrooms and editorial offices — or if they don’t, they should. What, for example, are the fine distinctions between a terrorist, a militant, an insurgent, a rebel and a fighter?

Is neutrality always the goal in labeling? Is accuracy? Are they the same thing? Do labels mutate over time or in different circumstances, acquiring fresh nuances of sanction or censure? Those are tough questions, and it heartening, not discouraging, that they are being raised by the secretary of defense in a country at war.

His purpose may not be the same as the media’s. He has to win a war; they have to report truthfully. But make no mistake: The temptations of propaganda beset both. And that is no laughing matter.

In a time of both misinformation and too much information, quality journalism is more crucial than ever.
By subscribing, you can help us get the story right.