Deather: A person who doesn’t believe Osama bin Laden was killed in the May 1 raid on his Abbottabad hideout. Deathers fall into two camps: those who believe bin Laden had been dead for some time before the raid; and those who demand photographic “proof” of the killing.
“The Dumbest Deather Theory” is the headline on a May 2 post on New York Magazine’s Intel blog:
Yes, the deathers. They’re folks who contend that Osama bin Laden wasn’t actually killed yesterday, that the whole thing is some kind of government hoax. … Cindy Sheehan, the well-known Iraq War protester, says “you’re stupid” if you believe that bin Laden is dead. She, like some commenters we’ve seen around the Internet, think the “alleged” ocean burial of bin Laden is merely a convenient excuse for not having to produce a body. Maybe, over time, she’ll be convinced by bin Laden’s failure to refute his demise with a new audiotape.
Deather was coined in imitation of two earlier conspiracist neologisms: truther (a person who disputes the official account of the 9/11 attacks, preferring to regard them as an “inside job”) and birther (a person who claims that President Barack Obama is not a US citizen). All three terms, and the perspectives they describe, are aspects of denialism, says research scientist Jamie L. Varon, writing in a Discover magazine blog:
One would expect that there are at least two competing interests in the minds of the deathers. The first could be a desire to believe that an existing threat, that of a terrorist mastermind, has been eliminated. The second interest appears to be a desire to find fault with President Obama, regardless of the benefits that might come from his service. According to Dan Kahan, one of the thought leaders in this field, this all happens subconsciously. Therefore, the deather must undergo a series of mental operations that lead him to choose the latter in order to satisfy a desired endpoint.
Deather had a life, so to speak, before May 1. In July 2009, while the US Congress was debating health-care reform, some panicked “observers”* seized on a provision in the legislation that would cover end-of-life consultations, deeming it “the legislative equivalent of euthanasia,” according to Christopher Beam, a reporter for Slate. In a July 28 article, Beam coined “deathers” to describe such people, and MSNBC news anchor Rachel Maddow credited Beam for the coinage (which she called “kind of brilliant”) on her show two days later. By November, Maddow seemed to think she’d coined the term herself. Leslie Savan, a guest contributor for the New York Times Sunday Magazine’s “On Language” feature, quoted Maddow in a column about “the recent spate of -ers”:
“It is possible I coined deather,” Rachel Maddow of MSNBC told me recently, citing her show’s coverage of “scare tactics used in the fight against health care reform.” Maddow said: “I thought I’d shorten it, because ‘people who believe health care reform is a secret plot to kill old people’ wouldn’t work. Deather seemed like an ironically self-referential term to ostentatiously bestow.”
Savan went on to parse the meaning of the -er suffix.
Today’s -er groups are not -ists; their beliefs are not -isms or -ologies, theories of social organization like communism or fields of study like sociology. Nor are they -ites, devout followers of a domineering visionary figure, like Trotskyites, Benthamites or Thatcherites. The -ers, the caricature asserts, are not sophisticated enough for that. That is perhaps why -er words, long before truther, have been used to deride political opponents, as in tree hugger, bra burner and evildoer — not to mention the catch-alls for extremists, wingers and nutters (from wing nut).
Since the truther phenomenon, we’ve had other -ers, including the tenthers (those who believe the 10th Amendment gives states the right to nullify federal laws) and the teabaggers (followers of the conservative tea party movement). Sarah Palin’s defenders have even labeled as Trig truthers those who suspect subterfuge surrounding her last pregnancy.
Ben Zimmer also covered this earlier meaning of deather in an August 2009 Visual Thesaurus column about the lexicon of the health-care debate.
In related news, Domain Name Wire reported last week that the deathers.com domain recently changed hands (WhoIs gives the transaction date as May 3) and now is the property of “Domain King” Rick Schwartz.
Also related: An Osama bin Laden lexicon.
* Why are they called “observers” when they’re anything but passive onlookers? I prefer “squawkers.”