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Please don’t do harm to meaning of ‘hold harmless’

When did the phrase “hold harmless” come to mean “not cause harm to?”

I’ve been outside governmental circles for a couple of years now and have probably missed a few of the changes in fashionable bureaucratic speechways. The last time I was really paying attention to politicians, the phrases and words that recurred ad nauseam were “there’s a steep learning curve to that,” when all that was meant was that something would be hard to learn, and “utilization,” an entirely unnecessary substitute for the wonderfully monosyllabic “use.”

It seems we have now added “hold harmless” to their fold.

What’s particularly grating about this development is that the phrase does have a real meaning, but that meaning is now in danger of being completely lost. Ask any lawyer and he’ll tell you that to hold something harmless means to shield it from liability.

Notice here that the thing you are talking about is often quite harmful. It’s just that, legally, you want to bar it from being deemed a source of harm. So you are holding it harmless in the same way that the Declaration of Independence “holds these truths to be self-evident.”

Now, this might be a slightly old-fashioned way of speaking, but at least it has sense behind it. Not so with the new use of “hold harmless.”

After all, the thing you are now holding harmless is actually the thing that is in danger of being harmed. It’s almost as if you were to say to a criminal that you wish he had held a victim harmless.

But now I risk belaboring the point.

The only other thing really worth considering is why the phrase is being used this way. One cause, I think, is the echo that probably suggests itself to many politicians when they start talking about holding something accountable. Only the strongest-willed among us could be expected to resist the temptation to turn a neat phrase by tacking on the words, “… and harmless.” Thus we’ve been assured in recent discussions about the University of Wisconsin and the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp., institutions that lawmakers are unhappy with for various reasons but generally still generally support, that they will be held accountable but also harmless.

Beyond that, I suspect it gives the ego a slight boost to be able to throw off a phrase that smacks of the legal profession, even if it is used incorrectly. Really, there’s nothing like adding a little professional jargon to one’s everyday speech to make one seem a part of some sort of separate, elite group. In truth, it’s too bad there isn’t such a group, and that one of the qualifications for membership isn’t being able to use the phrase correctly.

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