Jeffrey LewisDisablement, Whatever That Means

Ah, the simple joys of cross-cultural communication.

I was one of many observers struck by Condoleeza Rice’s awkward use of the term “disablement” to refer to an early phase in a process to “denuclearize” North Korea.

Now, China Matters rails against difficult to translate words like “disablement” in place of straightforward terms such as cease, destroy, dismantle, or remove. The inelegant word “disablement”—which doesn’t render any better in Chinese (去功能化)—has detractors on both sides of the Pacific.

China Matters notes that “It would be interesting to find out exactly what 去功能化 means.”

The word starting creeping into language of the Six Party Talks—as best I can tell—in June of 2004 with a US proposal that spelled out various steps in an implementation phase of a future Six Part Agreement. (The best descriptions are by then Assistant Secretary of State Jim Kelly and our own Paul Kerr.)

That proposal used “disablement” to describe the last of three steps in an “initial preparatory period, of perhaps three months’ duration, to prepare for the dismantlement and removal of the DPRK’s nuclear programs.”

The term had an inauspicious beginning, with Scott McClellan tripping over the awkward phrasing during a June 23 press conference:

But, you know, this is a plan for moving forward on dismantlement. And what you would have—first, you would have—it would have to have North Korea commit to the dismantlement of its nuclear program. And then you would have the parties agree to a detailed implementation plan which would require a supervised disablement of—disablement, dismantlement, elimination of all nuclear-related facilities and materials, the removal of all nuclear weapons and weapons components, centrifuge and other nuclear parts, fissile material and fuel rods, and a long-term monitoring program.

Watch Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice
pretend that disablement is a real word

From its awkward early days as one more marble in Scott McLellan’s mouth, “disablement” has come a long way: During her press conference announcing the Six Party agreement, Secretary Rice used disablement 21 times without stumbling or even seeming to notice that the word is truly bizarre.

In contrast, she referred to the goal of “denuclearization” just seven times, “dismantlement” four times and used straightforward terms like “cease”, “destroy” or “remove” not at all in connection with the North Korean nuclear program.

Maybe The Marmot’s Hole can tell us if the word means anything at all in Korean?


  1. SQ

    I don’t know why you object; it’s a perfectly cromulent word.

  2. Alex W. (History)

    I love the creation of new words when one is trying to get away from any past nuances associated with old words. It’s a short-lived strategy at best. “Gene” was coined as a word that would get away from any theoretical implications associated with heredity, but it did not take very long for it to acquire its own baggage.

  3. China Hand (History)

    Thanks for linking to my site if not directly to my post (you’ll have to scroll down the page to find it). The disablement thing reminds of the time when Alan Greenspan was forbidden to say the word “inflation” so he started referring to “banana” instead. In this case, i think “disablement” is simply a made-up word that each party to the declaration can define at its own discretion and for the United States means “something that looks, walks, and quacks like Clinton’s freeze but has to be called something else”.

  4. Gregory Kulacki (History)

    There is a discussion of the meaning of the term and why it evolved on the CCTV website. If I understand them correctly, it was basically a way for the Bush administration to avoid using the word “freeze”.

    Here’s the link

  5. yale (History)
  6. iain johnston

    “The inelegant word “disablement”—which doesn’t render any better in Chinese (去功能化)—has detractors on both sides of the Pacific.”

    The term may or may not be inelegant in Chinese, but this construction is not uncommon in chinese. The term for ‘de-sinification’—what Taiwanese nationalists are blamed for—is 去中国化

  7. Jim Jovanon (History)

    Every major dictionary definition I have found online for “disablement” equates it with the word disability, in the sense of a physical disability.

  8. TigerHawk (History) includes “disablement,” citing the Random House Unabridged Dictionary (2006). I’m not sure that is authority for anything much, insofar as an unabridged dictionary is descriptive, but it does imply at least some useage of the word beyond Chris Hill’s memoranda and Condi Rice’s press conferences.

  9. TigerHawk (History)

    Actually, “disablement” is also in the Fourth Edition of the American Heritage Dictionary, which is prescriptive. Son of a librarian that I am, I hereby assert that if a word is in American Heritage it is “real.” So I think your caption does Secretary Rice wrong.

  10. MTC (History)

    By contrast, in Japanese, “disablement” 無能力化 (munoryokuka), is a perfectly comprehensible and acceptable neologism.

    However, a translator worth his or her salt would probably translate 無能力化 as “incapacitation”.