Dictionary time with Brandon and John

When people disagree over the meaning of a word — like “mob” — it’s usually code for a deeper controversy.

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Mayor Brandon Johnson answers questions from reporters at City Hall on Wednesday, Aug. 2, 2023.

Mayor Brandon Johnson answers questions from reporters at City Hall last Wednesday — the news conference at which he objected to a group of marauding teens being described as a “mob action.”

Anthony Vazquez/Sun-Times

Readers regularly fall into a trap I call the “Two Definitions Problem.” They know a word means A, but forget it can also mean B,

For instance. On Monday, a reader chided me for referring to a choice between something that might cure you or kill you as “a dilemma.” A mistake, he lectured, because “a dilemma is a situation in which both possible outcomes are bad. ... Precise English is essential to the unambiguous writing for which you’re admired.”

I replied by pointing out that while a dilemma indeed can be a choice between bad alternatives, it can also simply be “a difficult situation or problem.”

Opinion bug


We saw the Two Definitions Problem last week at a Brandon Johnson press conference when a reporter called teens looting a 7-Eleven a “mob action” and the mayor objected.

“We’re not talking about mob actions,” Johnson said. “To refer to children as, like baby Al Capones, is not appropriate.”

There was a muffled “whump” as countless palms slapped countless foreheads. Meanwhile chairs innumerable scraped back as their occupants leapt up to cheer. The remark made headlines around the world.

“Chicago’s woke new mayor Brandon Johnson scolds reporters for using phrase ‘mob action’ to describe rabble of ‘400’ youngsters who trashed 7-Eleven in Windy City” blared Britain’s conservative Daily Mail.

Johnson chose to interpret “mob” in its organized crime sense, ignoring the “action” which made it a legal term.

In fact, “mob action” has its own section of the Illinois Criminal Statutes: ARTICLE 25. MOB ACTION AND RELATED OFFENSES

The definition runs over 1,000 words, but teens — whom Johnson reflexively reverted to “children” — rampaging through a store falls squarely within the realm.

This was a slow pitch down the middle to Fraternal Order of Police head John Catanzara and he swung from his heels.

“Nobody is renaming anybody little mini-Al Capones,” said Catanzara. “But they certainly, in many cases, had the same, terrorizing effect that Al Capone had 100 years ago with these teen takeovers, where they think they can do whatever they want with no repercussions, no parental supervision and no accountability — specifically apparent by the mayor’s office in City Hall.”

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara addresses a group of union protesters and supporters at an October 2021 rally against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Fraternal Order of Police Lodge 7 President John Catanzara addresses a group of union protesters and supporters at an October 2021 rally against COVID-19 vaccine mandates.

Associated Press

As much as a I hate to agree with a sneering MAGA troll like Catanzara, he’s right. To pretend the reporter’s question evokes Scarface Al is disingenuous, even for a dewy newcomer like Johnson.

When people start arguing semantics, there’s often a starker conflict being conveyed in code, and here the divide could not be wider. The comical “woke” in the Daily Mail headline — which they mean in its current usage as “stupidly liberal” — refers to Johnson being attuned to the historical wrongs that serve up generation after generation of young people who rob convenience stores instead of studying for the LSATs. He needs to always remember he’s the mayor for plundered store owners too.

Then you have closet bigots who celebrate incidents like the 7-Eleven melee because they see them as reinforcing their fixed notion that the only reason Black people in America — on average — suffer from greater poverty and crime, enjoy fewer education and job prospects, have shorter life spans and live in worse neighborhoods is because they’re bad people. Put ‘em in jail. Done.

He needs to realize most youth deserve to be served and protected, too.

There is no need to choose either extreme. Chicago can improve the lives of its young while still punishing crime.

Let’s end by parsing one word mentioned above: “reason.” My dictionary defines it as “a cause, explanation, or justification for an action or event.” There’s nothing wrong with understanding why crime occurs. When people ask me what should be done, my stock answer is “everything” — education, jobs, family, community. And law enforcement.

But that “justification” definition, as in “excuse,” is a ditch easy to fall in — or, in the mayor’s case, leap into.

Recognizing nuance is important with both words and politics. If you shout that a thug just beat you over the head with a pipe and stole your wallet, that is not the moment for me to observe that “thug” is a slur, a pejorative used to describe a young person perhaps from a difficult home environment without the advantages you and I enjoyed.

Brandon Johnson has not yet been mayor for three months; if he doesn’t figure out this words-convey-meaning business, it’s going to be a very long four years.

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