How to do things with the word 'terrorist'

Christopher Finlay

Research output: Contribution to journalArticle

16 Citations (Scopus)


Recently, some commentators have argued that the word 'terrorist' should be abandoned as it has become overloaded with undesirable 'rhetorical" connotations. This view is premised on the assumption that kin adequate distinction may be drawn between principled, 'logical' usages and merely 'rhetorical' ones. This article argues that the use of the word 'terrorist' normally has a 'rhetorical' aspect and that theorists must therefore find ways to distinguish between principled and unprincipled rhetorical deployments. I distinguish three rhetorical possibilities for using the word 'terrorist': the first invokes interlocutors' established background commitments to moral and descriptive norms, seeking agreement on the application of the word to a particular case; the second seeks to innovate, challenging either moral norms, descriptive criteria or, less often, the illocutionary force of the term; the third resists innovation but deploys the term in metaphorical ways for moral-rhetorical emphasis. Based on this taxonomy, the article reviews both polemical and scholary debates about definition and then proposes pragmatic, rhetorical considerations for adjudicating between competing definitional arguments. Finally, I review the implications of these considerations for the contentious issue of whether or not the term 'terrorist' properly applies to states.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)751-774
Number of pages24
JournalReview of International Studies
Issue number4
Publication statusPublished - 1 Oct 2009


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