Which is worse – regime or dictatorship?

Posted by on January 06, 2012

In a recent post, we saw that the word jargon – while more or less synonymous with terminology – has a much more negative feel. As always, you can tell a lot about a word by the company it keeps, and a comparison of the adjectives that frequently collocate with these two nouns is revealing. Both are frequently used with neutral words like technical, specialized, scientific, and legal. But (unlike terminology) jargon is often modified by adjectives such as incomprehensible, impenetrable, and unintelligible. It is sometimes implied that technical terms are being employed simply in order to make an impression or baffle the listener, when jargon is described as pompous, pretentious and – in over 50 instances in our corpus – unnecessary. So jargon is clearly something to be avoided (in fact avoid is one of its most common verb collocates), as this damning example from the corpus clearly demonstrates:

This new breed [of manager] can be spotted by their willingness to spout incomprehensible jargon.

This technique of examining collocates may help to defuse a row that has erupted this week in Chile, where the new education minister, Harald Beyer, has recommended a controversial change to the history textbooks used in the nation’s schools. From now on, the period when General Pinochet was in power will no longer be referred to as a ‘dictatorship’ but as a ‘regime’. This has, the news story says, ‘provoked outrage among left-wing opposition parties’ – but are they right to be so incensed?

The data suggests that regime and dictatorship are in fact very similar in terms of their ‘emotional charge’. The Sketch Engine – the software package we use for analysing corpus data – includes a nifty tool that allows you to compare the collocates of two words, and the results for this pair are revealing. Both are modified, with more or less equal frequency, by the adjectives repressive, corrupt, tyrannical, and brutal, while authoritarian and oppressive are even more likely to collocate with regime than with dictatorship. It’s a similar story with the verbs. When these nouns are in the subject position, both occur frequently with neutral words like rule or govern. But, if the linguistic evidence is anything to go by, regimes have an even stronger tendency than dictatorships to persecute, murder, oppress, imprison and torture people. So the proposed change in Chile may not after all do much to improve Pinochet’s image – if anything, ‘regimes’ look worse than ‘dictatorships’.

There’s an obvious flaw in this argument: the data here is about the English equivalents, but Chile is a Spanish-speaking country, and the change at the centre of the argument is not from dictatorship to regime, but from dictadura to régimen militar. Fortunately, the Sketch Engine has a large corpus of Spanish too, so we can run the same comparison. The results are very different, and (not surprisingly) reflect the political history of Spain and Latin America – one of the commonest modifiers for both nouns is ‘Francoist‘ (franquista). But here too, there is some evidence to suggest that the connotations of ‘regime’ are no less negative than those of ‘dictatorship’, with régimen often attracting adjectives like authoritarian, dsciplinarian, fascist, and totalitarian.

As always, comments are welcome, and we’d be especially interested to hear what our Chilean readers think about this.

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