What does “defund” really mean?

“Defund the police.” That means… what?

Does it mean eliminate police departments? Does it mean reduce their funding? Does it mean anarchy?

Here are three posts I saw on Facebook yesterday — one posted by a friend, two from a FOAF:

  • From the OP:
  • From a commenter:
    “Defund the Police” does not mean having no system to handle violent criminals. It means reducing the police force to one that is appropriate to their mission and training. For some people, it also means eventually replacing the police with other systems of community self-protection…but not overnight, only when there’s a well-designed and time-tested model to adopt.
  • From another commenter:
    I’m so glad you posted this. What we say/how we say it matters. I’m terrified that the phrase “Defund the Police” could push people back into Trump’s arms. We may want communities that we trust to defund and use the funds more wisely but to encourage this in every community is to increase the danger for people of color in right wing communities. Let’s focus on the 8 CAN’TWAIT, and systems that hold police accountable (these have decreased under trump). There are police groups that have acknowledged that they are dealing with issues (mental illness, etc) that they have no training for. Let’s push hard and find common ground. https://www.bostonglobe.com/…/boston-police-update-use…/

So what’s going on here? Clearly there is no consensus about what the slogan means. I strongly agree with all of the above views, but what’s the linguistic reason for all this disagreement? I suspect that it’s an interaction between two phenomena: first, defund is a very uncommon word; second, people don’t understand the common de- prefix. Let’s tackle these one at a time:

  • How common has defund been before this month? We’ll learn something from the Google Ngram viewer (if you don’t know it, it will be worth your while spending five minutes to learn it). Here Is a graph comparing defund with another similar word, devolve, using a corpus of American English books from 1910 to 2010. Yes, I know, that that doesn’t go up to the present time, but it will still make the point:

    Even the uncommon word devolve was more than 52 times as common as defund. People just don’t know the word.
  • What’s up with the de- prefix? The problem is that people don’t really understand what it means. And that fact is thoroughly reasonable, as it as more than one meaning! The original meaning, from the Latin, was “down from,” but of course it has changed over a couple of millennia. (Language changes, as I keep pointing out.) Many Americans think it means “un-,” and indeed it occasionally does. But where can you get the full story? First of all, you could start with Wiktionary, which provides charts like this one:

    Not terribly helpful, is it? So we can turn to the highly recommended Dictionary of Affixes, which tells us that “the prefix has several meanings. In older words, adopted from French or directly from Latin roots, it can contain the idea of ‘down’ or ‘away’, often figuratively, as in descend, depress, degrade, and depose. Sometimes it implies something done completely or thoroughly, as with denude, devour, or derelict. It often has negative implications, as with deceive, delude, deride, and detest.” I’m not claiming, of course, that people are conscious of these possibilities, merely that they don’t know — and therefore leap to conclusions. Defund might mean “completely remove funding from,” or it might mean “reduce funding and put it somewhere else.” It’s politically dangerous to create a slogan that will be misinterpreted, whether deliberately or not, by Trump supporters.

And here endeth today’s linguistics lesson.

Categories: Life, Linguistics