An Uncompromising Use of 'Intransigent'

The House Republicans have earned an epithet.

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The cliché: In December, many on the left feared that the newly elected Republican majority in the House of Representatives might prove uncompromising on issues from the Bush tax cuts to the debt ceiling. While some heralded an era of bipartisanship in the immediate wake of the midterm elections, The New Republic's Jonathan Chait warned last November that the Republicans had no stake in achieving success through compromise. Presciently, he wrote, "[E]ven if Republican intransigence produces an outcome that is regarded as bad by Republicans, it will redound to the party's benefit." As both parties dug their trenches for the debt ceiling debate, commentators set aside common synonyms ("uncompromising" for instance) and seized on "Republican intransigence" or "GOP intransigence" or "Tea Party intransigence" as the favored descriptor for the House majority. As inflexibility turned debt ceiling negotiations into a crisis, "intransigence" went viral.

  • Clive Crook entitled his Monday Financial Times column: "To the Intransigent Go the Spoils."
  • Ewan MacAskill entitled his Monday Guardian column: "Tea Party Intransigence Takes America to the Brink."
  • American Prospect editor Robert Kuttner writes in Politico: "If he keeps compromising and rewards GOP intransigence to demonstrate that he is 'the only grown-up in the room,' the Republicans win politically and ideologically."
  • Harold Meyerson writes in The Washington Post: "The GOP's intransigence in the face of one concession after another from the president... has certainly given them more substantive victories than virtually anyone anticipated."

Where it's from: Just like stubbornness itself, this word has been around for awhile. Transigentem in Latin means "to come to an agreement." The root took hold in later romance languages and probably made its way to English by way of French. It is often used to describe politics. Just read some of the books titles in which the word appears: The Intransigent Radical Movement: An Attempt at Democratic Solutions for Argentina, or Intransigent Oligarchs and Political Violence: El Salvador in 1972 and 1932. This political implication, too, has its origins in romance languages as, apparently, an extremist republican political party (note the lower case "r") of 19th century Spain titled themselves los intransigentes, or "not coming to an agreement."

Why it's catching on: Intransigence seems to us like a fairly obscure word for a common phenomenon. So why haven't commentators seized on any of its synonyms? Maybe "Republican intransigence" just flows better than "Republican refusal to compromise." But why not then something like "Republican rigidness"?
So why else?  Where better to look when one is questioning the linguistic choices of political writers than George Orwell's 1946 essay "On Politics and the English Language." As usual, he has some very good thoughts on the matter:
"Bad writers, and especially scientific, political, and sociological writers, are nearly always haunted by the notion that Latin or Greek words are grander than Saxon ones, and unnecessary words like expedite, ameliorate, predict, extraneous, deracinated, clandestine, subaqueous, and hundreds of others constantly gain ground from their Anglo-Saxon numbers."
With the stakes as high as they were in the debt ceiling debate, one cannot blame political writers for attempting to bring some "grandness" or weight to their descriptions. Still, most uses of "GOP intransigence" have been as a pejorative to lay blame with the Republicans for manufacturing the crisis. If their intent was to convince others of Republican childishness, they might have done better to a) pick a word that implies immaturity or commonness or b) pick a word that might make their point more clearly. After all, Orwell writes that words intended to elevate the discourse often become instead "strictly meaningless in the sense that they not only do not point to any discoverable object, but are hardly ever expected to do so by the reader." On this last point, we think he would have been intransigent.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.