What's in a Word | All Blogs

“Evil Empire” Spreads

By Debra Dobbins

Powerful people understand that words have power. Case in point: the phrase “evil empire,” coined by President Reagan in a speech he gave in 1983 in Orlando, Fla.

Speaking to the National Association of Evangelicals, Reagan took a hard-line approach to the Soviet Union, considered at that time our nation’s chief enemy.

Toward the end of his speech, he said, “So, in your discussions of the nuclear freeze proposals, I urge you to beware the temptation of pride - the temptation of blithely declaring yourselves above it all and label both sides equally at fault, to ignore the facts of history and the aggressive impulses of an evil empire, to simply call the arms race a giant misunderstanding and thereby remove yourself from the struggle between right and wrong and good and evil.”

The phrase “evil empire” has since made its way into popular usage. According to Wikipedia, Wal-Mart is sometimes called this because of its “controversial labor tactics,” and advocates of free software use it to describe Microsoft.

The phrase also shows up in popular music. For example, it appears in the lyrics of “Du Og Meg” (You and Me) in the 2007 album, Icons, Abstract Thee by the American band, Of Montreal.

In the sports world Wikipedia notes that the rivals of the Edmonton Eskimos, a Canadian football team, call them the “evil empire” because of their success over the last 50 years. The New York Yankees, again according to Wikipedia, have this nickname because of their astronomical salaries and their seeming ability to sign any player they want:

“The first usage of this term relating to the Yankees was from Boston Red Sox President and CEO Larry Lucchino, after the Red Sox lost out to the Yankees in a bidding war for Cuban pitcher José Contreras. After initially not commenting on the signing, a frustrated Lucchino told the New York Times ‘No, I'll make a comment. The evil empire extends its tentacles even into Latin America.’ The nickname, though derogatory towards the team, has since been embraced by Yankee fans.”

Reagan, an actor turned politician, was acutely aware of the power of words. While he might have been well pleased that “evil empire” is now a common phrase, perhaps his biggest pleasure would have come from knowing the effect of his words on a Jewish refusenik in a cell in Siberia.

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