“Affiliate,” “Franchise,” and al-Qaeda

By Maeve Maddox

The first time I heard the expression “al-Qaeda franchise,” I ran to the dictionary. Surely, I thought, that can’t be a correct use of the word franchise.

The word franchise can be used with more than one meaning, of course. When we say that American women obtained the franchise in 1920, we mean that they obtained the right to vote.

To enfranchise a person can mean either to confer the right to vote on a person or, in the context of servitude, to give a person his freedom.

Since 1959, the noun franchise has been used with the meaning “authorization by a company to sell its products or services.” In 1966 it acquired the sense of “commercial licensing.”

We speak of sports franchises, hotel franchises, and restaurant franchises. In every type of franchise, a business relationship exists in which an authorizing entity confers rights to operate some kind of business according to specified rules in exchange for a licensing fee.

The noun affiliate is used in a similar way.

An affiliate company is one that is related to another in a subordinate way.

Koch Nitrogen Company and its affiliates are collectively one of the world’s largest producers and marketers of nitrogen fertilizers.

Online marketing makes use of affiliate sellers who may promote a company’s product on their websites for a percentage of its selling price, or who may sell their own products on a site owned by a large company to which they pay a percentage of their earnings.

With both franchises and affiliates there’s a mutually recognized and acknowledged business relationship, and money changes hands.

It seems to me that the journalistic trend of referring to just any nest of terrorists as “al-Qaeda affiliates” or “franchises” is counterproductive.

I understand the rationale for wanting a term that enables one to talk about copycat bombers without conveying the idea that al-Qaeda is more widespread and powerful than in fact it is.

According to BBC writer John Simpson, BBC security correspondent Frank Gardner

popularised the notion that, far from being a clear-cut organisation with executives and an international membership, al-Qaeda was like a franchise.

Any effort to strip al-Qaeda of its bogeyman mystique is a step in the right direction, but using words that make us think of MacDonald’s or Amazon.com may not be the best way to go about it.

Unless a group like the one in Yemen that tried to send bombs to Chicago really is organized, funded, or sponsored by al-Qaeda, why not just call it “an extremist group”?

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4 Responses to ““Affiliate,” “Franchise,” and al-Qaeda”

  • Michael C. Cordell

    You should’ve also noted “disenfranchise,” a word frequently heard from communities who feel their right to vote – or better, to be heard and therefore disregarded – has been taken away. According to Merriam-Webster, it means “to deprive of a franchise, of a legal right, or of some privilege or immunity; especially : to deprive of the right to vote.”

  • John

    It is a rich post like the many others I found and read in the archive. What interested me here most is the evolvement of franchise. Felt like this subject deserves a column of its own perhaps something that is called Kinetic English that brings to light words which are evolving.

  • Nelida K.

    Well said, Maeve. Journalese needs to abide by some limits, freedom-of- the-press notwithstanding, because as everybody knows, especially linguists, sociologists, psychologists, historians and the like, speech influences thought, and the press/media is particularly an opinion-shaper. Having said this, it follows that no economy-of-language argument justifies extremists receiving a linguistic pat in the back, akin with glorification of an ingloriouos occupation.

  • Andee

    I agree that the group should be officially linked to the greater organization, or at least working with the express approval of that group to be called a franchise. Use of this word certainly implies that.

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