Saturday, August 01, 2009

What I Learned at the FBI

On Thursday I attended a seminar at the FBI for film and TV writers. There was lots of useful information, but what I found most interesting was the FBI agents' use of language. Specifically, I noticed that they regularly used the word 'forfeit' as a transitive verb meaning 'to acquire by asset forfeiture.' As in: "The FBI forfeited $2.6 million in this operation."

Of course, this is a perfect reversal of meaning. The standard meaning of 'forfeit' is to lose or to abandon, not to acquire.

I don't know that this says anything particular about FBI psychology, except that asset forfeiture has become so routine that they needed a shorter word -- "acquire by asset forfeiture" being rather cumbersome. I suppose that agents just naturally extracted the only verb embedded in the phrase 'asset forfeiture.' Words like 'seize' and 'confiscate' either didn't occur to them, or else seemed too narrow because they don't necessarily imply keeping the seized assets.

Still, it was jarring to hear this casual use of a word to mean something so diametrically opposite its original meaning. At first I was genuinely confused; when I heard an agent say the FBI had forfeited a bunch of money in some operation, I momentarily thought the FBI had actually returned the money to someone. But what are the odds of that?


Anonymous said...

Love the show! I saw your name in the credits and I yelled to my wife that one of my former teachers is on the tv.


Anonymous said...

Talk about morphed meanings. Good thing you didn't take what you heard literally--or if you did, you soon figured it out. Looking forward to a new season of Fringe...


Jenny said...

Creepy! (That means that it's a bad thing.) Right out of Disneyland. It's sort of like calling the trash collector a "community health specialist" or something. Make the language nicer to prevent your employees from feeling bad about their jobs. Ugh!

Jeff Brown said...

I recently learned there's a whole class of words called "antagonyms" or "auto-antonyms" like this. Wikipedia has a list of them; it's hilarious.