Dear Word Detective: This may be too political for your column, but the word “mercenary” has been defined on various news shows lately as a soldier hired by a foreign country. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, that is “now” correct. The “now” apparently means it wasn’t always so, I guess. Can you give us the history of this word and when it came to mean exclusively a soldier hired into foreign service? — Barney Johnson.
Too political? Nonsense. I thrive on controversy. I’m the guy who wants to outlaw football, remember?
The term “mercenary” is a touchy subject at the moment, of course, because of the prominent role played by “military contractors” such as Blackwater USA in the US military engagement (to pick a neutral term) in Iraq. Blackwater and other such operators vigorously reject the word “mercenary” to describe their role because the term is widely considered pejorative. They also note that their role is confined to guarding officials and supply convoys and that their employees do not function as front-line offensive troops.
Mercenaries, soldiers who fight for pay in armed conflicts, usually in which their own nation is not involved, have been a fixture of warfare since Ancient Egypt, and Hessian mercenaries (from the German state of Hesse) fought on the British side in the American Revolution. More recently, mercenaries played a controversial role in several post-colonial wars and coups in sub-Saharan Africa in the 1960s and 1970s.
The word “mercenary,” while it hasn’t always meant “gun for hire,” has never been considered a compliment. Even the Latin root of the word, “mercenarius” (from “merces,” wages), although it literally meant only “person for hire,” was commonly used to mean “one who will do anything for money.” When “mercenary” appeared as a noun in English in the 14th century, it meant “hireling, one who works only for money” and, more broadly, “one who acts in the interest of personal gain, often at the expense of ethics.”
Instances of “mercenary” being used to mean “hired soldier from another country” are found as early as the 1500s, but for several centuries it was also used in a less pejorative sense to mean anyone, such as a tutor, hired to do a specific job. But the moral abhorrence attached by most societies to those who engage in combat purely for money (as opposed to being motivated by patriotism or idealism) seems to have pretty quickly crowded out the less negative uses. By noting that “mercenary” means “now only” a hired soldier, the Oxford English Dictionary is acknowledging that this process is now complete, and that the noun “mercenary” now carries such stigma that it is very rare to see it used in a non-military (or figuratively military) context. As an adjective, however, “mercenary” has retained some flexibility, and is commonly used to mean simply “motivated by profit or personal gain” (“Upon the ‘balance’,..women are quite as mercenary as men,” 1843).