In a speech made after the November terrorist attacks in Paris, President Obama criticized the media’s use of the word mastermind to describe Abdelhamid Abaaoud. “He’s not a mastermind,” he stated. “He found a few other vicious people, got hands on some fairly conventional weapons, and sadly, it turns out that if you’re willing to die you can kill a lot of people.”
Why did Obama single out this particular word? What in its history and current use make it a problematic term?
The first masterminds
To find out, we need to go back to the 17th century. Currently, the first citation for mastermind in the Oxford English Dictionary is John Dryden’s play Cleomenes, of 1692: “A Soul, not conscious to it self of Ill, Undaunted Courage, and a Master-mind.” Here, and for nearly 200 years to follow, the term was solely a positive one, used to describe “a person with an outstanding intellect.” In 1720, in his translation of the Illiad, Alexander Pope chose it to describe Vulcan’s creation of the Shield of Achilles, reflecting the noble, godlike associations of the word, and tying it to the concept of creative genius: “There shone the image of the master-mind./There earth, there heaven, there ocean he design’d.”
It is not until 1872 that the word is recorded with any negative connotations. In Anthony Trollope’s novel The Eustace Diamonds, Lord George de Bruce Carruthers complains that “up to this week past every man in the police thought that I had been the mastermind among the thieves,” giving the term its first whiff of criminality. A new meaning was established, namely: “a person who plans and directs an ingenious and complex scheme or enterprise” – and came to be strongly associated with wrongdoing.
This new meaning did not eclipse the “outstanding intellect” sense, however, with both uses well evidenced throughout the 20th century. Today, the term continues to be used in positive, admiring contexts, including the long-running British quiz show Mastermind (1972-present). Our language databases show numerous modern examples where it describes creative genius, such as the filmmaker who “is a mastermind, and only does something if its better or different than his last piece”; the musician who is “the creative mastermind behind this album”; and the writer of a successful TV series who is described as “the mastermind behind this masterwork of a show.”
Positive or negative?
One of the problems Obama was referring to with this word, therefore, is its continued positive associations – it is used to describe exceptional people, who have produced great creative works, and is therefore – he suggests – not appropriate to describe a terrorist. Despite this positive sheen, the term has become strongly linked to criminality. The Oxford English Corpus shows that the words most associated with mastermind are a felonious group – criminal, terrorist, and evil are among the most common types of mastermind in our databases, and they are most usually found attacking, plotting, and bombing. Alleged and suspected masterminds are also extremely common, demonstrating that the word is a favourite of news reports. Indeed, the term could be described as part of the shorthand of journalese – and it comes as no surprise that it appears more than twice as often in news reports as it does in any other type of writing.
The other realm in which mastermind is commonly found is that of film. The diabolical mastermind (another common collocation on the Oxford English Corpus) is a caricature familiar from hundreds of spy and action movies. That we choose this word to describe people who commit acts of terror in the real world is both unsurprising and unsettling. Most people are only able to process acts of extreme violence in terms of what they have seen on the screen – it is common, in the wake of attacks or disasters, to hear the people involved describe what has occurred as “like something from a film.” In the same way, the people responsible for such acts of violence – the terrorists – are associated with Hollywood supervillains. It is easier to frame these people as fictional, one-dimensional, “evil” characters, than to see them as mere humans, and attempt to understand their actions on that basis. The world of films is clearer cut, more black and white, less troubled by moral ambiguity.
This association with Hollywood also gives mastermind a kind of glamour, a certain desirability. Two other phrases commonly seen in the Oxford English Corpus are self-proclaimed mastermind and self-described mastermind. Clearly, this is a label that certain people wish to attach to themselves, despite – or, perhaps in some cases, because of – its association with notorious terrorist acts. It glorifies the people behind these acts, placing them on a pedestal alongside the invincible criminal geniuses of fiction and film.
Which word to use instead?
So what are the alternatives? Ringleader has been suggested, and has been seen in several recent newspaper reports of terrorist activities. Defined as “a person who initiates or leads an illicit or illegal activity,” this is more transparently negative, and is rarely used as a “self-proclaimed” label in the way that mastermind is. Commander is another alternative, though this word’s associations with organized military leadership may raise objections to its use to describe terrorists. A more neutral alternative is organizer, which the Oxford English Corpus shows is used in a range of contexts, from festivals and conferences to protests and raves.
Of course, there is no perfect choice. No words are truly neutral (if neutrality is even what we are seeking) or, for that matter, wholly positive or negative. Words are fluid: they do not exist in isolation, but gain their meaning from the contexts in which they are used, and the associations they gain from them. Those associations have the power to make us feel a certain way – fear or courage, unity or discord. And that power is ours, in the words we choose to describe and explain the often incomprehensible events around us.
Featured Image: “Ambassade de France US – Barack Obama – Condoléances Charlie Hebdo” by the White House. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.