On January 6, 2021, interest in the words insurrection, sedition, treason, and coup all surged on on Dictionary.com after a mob of supporters of Donald Trump stormed the US Capitol building on the day Congress was set to certify the electoral vote count to confirm Joe Biden’s presidential election victory.
Many journalists, political analysts, and politicians all used these very serious—and consequential—words to refer to the shocking events that occurred in the nation’s capital. But, as became plainly clear on January 6, words matter. What do each of these words mean? Are they used differently in legal contexts than they are in everyday settings? And what are the distinctions between them?
What is sedition?
Sedition is the “incitement of discontent or rebellion against a government.” Its adjective form is seditious, as in seditious conspiracy. Its noun forms (e.g., someone planning sedition) are seditionist and seditionary.
The word sedition can also more broadly refer to activities that show resistance or opposition to a government more generally. This use is sometimes done for rhetorical effect or when condemning authoritarian governments who are accusing, punishing, or jailing its critics or opponents as guilty of sedition.
The word sedition was first recorded in the 1300s. It comes from the Latin noun sēditiō, meaning “sedition, insurrection, mutiny.” The word is based on roots that literally mean “a going apart.”
Legal definition of sedition
United States law provides specific information on the crime of sedition. Section 2384 of Chapter 115 in Title 18 of the United States Code (which lays out federal crimes and criminal procedures) defines the crime of seditious conspiracy and Section 2385, advocating overthrow of the government.
According to Section 2384, a person can be fined or imprisoned for conspiring to overthrow or oppose the government by force, prevent or delay its laws by force, or take by force its property. Section 2385 makes it a crime—punishable by fines, imprisonment, and/or being barred from federal employment—to engage in such actions as advocating, abetting, advising, or teaching anything that encourages using force to destroy or overthrow the government, including distributing materials or organizing groups to these ends.
What is treason?
Treason is “the offense of acting to overthrow one’s government or to harm or kill its sovereign.”
Treason can also refer to a more basic violation of allegiance to one’s ruler or state. An act of betrayal is sometimes called treason too in everyday language, often to heighten its emotional impact. Treason is used more facetiously, too, e.g., When my boyfriend started rooting against our home team in the playoff game, I charged him with treason.
The word treason was first recorded in English between 1175 and 1225. Entering English from French, treason comes from the Latin trāditiōn-, a stem of the verb trāditiō, “betrayal”—and literally, “a handing over.”
Legal definition of treason
Also, like sedition, treason has a specific definition under Chapter 115 of Title 18 of the US Code. Section 2381 stipulates:
Whoever, owing allegiance to the United States, levies war against them or adheres to their enemies, giving them aid and comfort within the United States or elsewhere, is guilty of treason.
In US law, the punishment for a conviction for treason is severe: death.
What is an insurrection?
An insurrection is “an act or instance of rising in revolt, rebellion, or resistance against civil authority or an established government.” The noun form, for someone who partakes in an insurrection, is insurrectionist or insurrectionary.
The word insurrection was first recorded in the 1400s. It ultimately comes from the Latin verb insurgere, meaning “to rise up, ascend, rebel.”
Legal definition of insurrection
Title 18 of the US Code (Section 2383 in Chapter 115) also sets out the crime and penalty for insurrection:
Whoever incites, sets on foot, assists, or engages in any rebellion or insurrection against the authority of the United States or the laws thereof, or gives aid or comfort thereto, shall be fined under this title or imprisoned not more than ten years, or both; and shall be incapable of holding any office under the United States.
What is a coup?
Sometimes, like insurrection or sedition, the word coup is used broadly to refer to a mutiny or any example of a group suddenly seizing power from any leader, not just a political one.
The word coup was first recorded in the 1640s. It literally means “blow” or “stroke” in French, hence one of its additional meanings in English: “a highly successful, unexpected stroke, act, or move; a clever action or accomplishment.”
The full phrase coup d’etat literally means “blow of (against) the state.”
Legal definition of coup
Title 18 of the US Code does not specifically mention coup. Several US laws—including three in Title 22 of the US Code, which concerns foreign relations and intercourse—concern prohibitions against foreign governments deposed by military coups.
What is terrorism?
The word terrorism was first recorded in the late 1700s. It is based on the word terror, which comes from the Latin verb terrēre, meaning “to frighten.”
Legal definition of terrorism
Chapter 113B in Title 18 of the US Code has extensive provisions on—and definitions of—terrorism. In the US, protecting terrorists acts is under the jurisdiction of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI).
Based on Chapter 113B, the FBI also provides definitions for international terrorism and domestic terrorism.
- International terrorism: violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups who are inspired by, or associated with, designated foreign terrorist organizations or nations (state-sponsored).
- Domestic terrorism: violent, criminal acts committed by individuals and/or groups to further ideological goals stemming from domestic influences, such as those of a political, religious, social, racial, or environmental nature.
Putting it all together: sedition vs. treason vs. insurrection vs. coup vs. terrorism
Sedition is incitement or promotion of rebellion against the government, while an insurrection is an active rebellion or uprising against the government.
In the context of government overthrow, the word coup is short for coup d’état, which narrowly refers to an illegal or forceful change of government, as opposed to an uprising in general. A coup may be attempted with the intention of removing a single political leader, rather than instituting an entirely new form of government, for example.
Despite the differences in their meanings, terms like sedition, insurrection, and coup are sometimes used in the discussion of the same events. For example, sedition may inspire an insurrection that results in a coup.
Terrorism involves the use of violence or threats of violence—especially against civilians—to achieve some political aim. Domestic terrorism specifically refers to acts of terrorism against one’s fellow citizens, whereas acts of international terrorism are perpetrated by people connected to foreign groups or nations. By contrast, the word insurrection typically refers to acts that target the government, rather than civilians. However, some acts of insurrection may also be considered acts of terrorism.
What is a banana republic?
Finally, a brief note on banana republic. Some discussing the events of January 6 described them as having the atmosphere of a banana republic, which refers to an authoritarian country known for exploiting its citizens for the benefit of wealthy elites and foreign corporations.
The term banana republic was coined by writer William Sydney Porter (O. Henry) in his 1904 collection of stories Cabbages and Kings. The term was originally used to describe Central America countries who were dependent on foreign fruit companies during the early 20th Century. Due to disparaging associations with Central American countries, use of the term is often criticized.