Sarah Palin causes a controversy with the phrase “blood libel.” What does it mean, and why are people upset?

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The tragedy in Arizona continues to command national attention as well as launch unusual words like “vitriol” into the national vocabulary. Today Sarah Palin referred to accusations that imagery and rhetoric associated with her may have contributed to recent violence as a “blood libel.” Why has this phrase stirred up so much additional strife?

While Palin caused a linguistic sensation in 2010 with her coinage “refudiate” as well as other colorful malapropisms, our hope here is to shed some light on the current uproar rather than add to it.

Blood libels are allegations that a person or group engages in human sacrifice, often accompanied by the claim that the blood of victims is used in various rituals and/or acts of cannibalism. Its use is nearly always excluded to sensationalized accusations and high emotions. Throughout history, these claims have been frequently made against Jews living in Europe and even resulted in lynching and persecution of whole Jewish communities.

Pundits say that the reason this phrase has provoked so much anger is because Palin is using the specific and intense sense of “blood libel” to refer to verbal criticisms, implying an equivalence between both circumstances. The famous linguist Deborah Tannen speculated today that Palin and her advisors are unaware of blood libel’s historical meaning, and that the whole episode is a case of semantic bleaching, a phenomenon where a word or term with a specialized meaning takes on a more generalized set of associations with time. In this scenario, the term may simply be thought to mean “a false accusation regarding responsibility for harm to others.”

If you have any questions regarding meaning surrounding the situation in Arizona or the current political environment, let us know below, and we will try to provide useful terms to help. Dictionary.com is a source for authority regarding words – not political actions or opinions. It’s in everyone’s interest to fully understand words and their context to make meaningful connections that are not lost among high emotion and, in the case of the tragedy in Arizona, grief, anger, and more.

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