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Patriot Names

By "Guido Veloce"
Illustration by Michael Morgenstern

In recent months I've heard a very similar comment from people with very different political perspectives. It goes something like this: "Politicians have messed up a good word." The word is "patriot." What makes this so striking is that those making the comment couldn't agree on which politicians did the messing or on how they messed it up. Even so, this rare bit of linguistic consensus among people otherwise very far apart set me to thinking about "patriot." Not about who is or is not one. I will leave that to other realms — political science, political theory, political debate, and negative campaigning. What I was curious to learn is what Americans use the word to name.

A couple of instances came immediately to mind. The recent USA Patriot Act is one of them, as is the Patriot Missile, but the latter is a natural. If you're going to have missiles, you want them to be very, very loyal. No one is going to call a missile the Mercenary or the Pro Athlete. The New England Patriots are another obvious, but problematic, case. In terms of its name, the only team that might morally trump the Patriots is the New Orleans Saints. Even that is questionable. The Saints' win-loss record indicates that the Deity regards the name as purely ironic. Can we then, in good conscience, root against the Patriots in favor of birds, pirates, marine mammals, large shaggy beasts, or greedy young men who abandoned their families to get rich quick? Or, conversely, if we root for the Patriots instead of the home team, are we being athletically unpatriotic? For now, I'm sticking with pirates and greedy young men, but these are complex times.

Finding less obvious things named "patriot" meant research. As a dedicated scholar, I headed for the nearest resource, namely the Baltimore City telephone directory. People here in search of patriot businesses have their choice of air freight, electric, fire stopping, homes, mortgage, real estate, and trucking and shipping companies. It was a relief not to find bars or escort services.

Next stop on my research trip was the Internet. It began badly. The first "patriot" Web site I visited caused my computer to crash, possibly a sign of a vast conspiracy dedicated to concealing the truth about a regional athletic league. It is a league, I might add, founded on the subversive, grammatically challenged, "principles [sic] of admitting athletes who are academically representative of their class."

I did not have the patience to look at all 1,770,000 patriot items my surfing yielded. But among the first hundred, I found fascinating things, including a parody Web site that allows one to register as a patriot. (What kinds of junk e-mail would that bring?) My search also produced a fair amount about the USA Patriot Act, a religious organization or two, a political party, a music scene, and some truly scary groups — nothing surprising there. Primarily, however, the search generated the names of businesses. Among them were a company helping organizations comply with the USA Patriot Act, and lots of newspapers. Others provided services, like a bank, a credit union, and a communications company. There was a movie chain, a couple of businesses connected with boats and fishing, and ones selling motorcycles (American-made), antenna systems, technology, electronics, machine design and manufacturing, and "alfalfa, corn, sorghum, soybean, and wheat seed."

The result was more bizarre when I looked for "patriot" in popular culture. I found 41 reasonably contemporary songs with "patriot" or "patriotic" in the title, followed, in order of appearance on my computer screen, by such words as: Game, Decay, Con, Rag, Rap, Polka, Virus, Pimp, Fever, March, Pride, Rally, Shock, Diggers, Claptrap, and Jam. (This is not a new development. Hopkins' Lester S. Levy Sheet Music Collection has 215 19th-century items with "Patriot" in the title, among them "Good Hard Cider. A Favorite Patriotic Ballad.") A search for movies with "patriot" in the title yielded 23 — not all in English — and two "special interest" films, one titled Patriot Dames. Its director was Max Hardcore.

My conclusions? One is that everybody from pop stars to politicians is using love of country to sell something, including themselves. Another is that when it comes to messing up good words, Americans don't need politicians to do it for them.

"Guido Veloce" is a Johns Hopkins University professor.

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