Subvert and Suborn

By Maeve Maddox

A reader has asked for a discussion of the words subvert and suborn.

Both are verbs and both have been used with meanings no longer common.

Deriving ultimately from a Latin word for “to overturn,” subvert came into English from French subvertir, “to raze, destroy completely.”

The meaning has developed from the literal destruction of a town or building to mean the overturning of an established practice or belief. Example: Critics assert that allowing women to become priests would subvert apostolic teachings regarding the role of women in the Church.

Subvert was once used to mean the bringing down of a nation or a state, but now the sense is “to undermine without necessarily bringing down the established authority.” Example: Efforts are being made by means of sabotage to subvert that country’s efforts to build a war machine.

Socrates was accused of subverting youth with his teachings. This sense of subvert is “to corrupt or pervert a person, or a person’s mind, causing the person to turn away from a path or belief regarded as right or proper.” Jazz and rock music have been criticized as subverting youthful morals.

Literary critics use the word subvert in terms of challenging and undermining a conventional idea, form, or genre by presenting it in a new way. An example of this use of subvert is the way Joss Whedon took the cliché of the helpless, usually blonde, beauty who enters an alley to be murdered by a monster, and turned it on its head to create the character of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. He “subverted” the horror genre.

Subvert applies principally to the overthrow of ideas. Suborn has to do with causing an individual to commit a crime.

Like subvert, suborn entered English by way of French. It meant “to induce a person to commit a crime, especially to give false testimony.” It now means “to cause a person to commit perjury.”

The fictional ADAs on TV’s Law and Order often use the term “suborning perjury.” The legal term is defined as “the criminal offense of procuring another to commit perjury, which is the crime of lying, in a material matter, while under oath.”

Note: ADA stands for Assistant District Attorney. In most U.S. jurisdictions, the District Attorney represents the government in prosecuting criminal offenses.

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4 Responses to “Subvert and Suborn”

  • David Crosswell

    `Subsume’ is another one you can throw into that mix.

  • Dale A. Wood

    NOT: “In most U.S. jurisdictions, the District Attorney represents”, but rather “In most American jurisdictions, the District Attorney represents.”
    “American” is the adjectival form of “United States of America”.
    In the large legal jurisdictions of the United States, there are ususally Assistant District Attorneys because the workload is so large. The TV program LAW AND ORDER is set in New York City.
    Often, the position of District Attorney in the large jurisdictions is an elected one. Then, the Assistant District Atorneys are hired acording to their qualifications. In other words, they are civil service jobs.

  • Dale A. Wood

    In the American federal Department of Justice, the chief is the Attorney General. He or she is appointed by the President and can be dismissed by the President at any time for any reason, as well as can some of his assistants. On the other hand, the regional District Attorneys are Civil Service workers, and they can only be fired for cause. However, the Attorney General decides about where the various attorneys are assigned. One who has fallen into disfavor could presumably be assigned to a remote part of Alaska, Texas, or Montana, for example.
    D.A.W.

  • venqax

    No, that entirely is wrong. There are no district attorneys in the federal judicial system. The chief prosecutor in each federal district is called the U.S. Attorney (USA) for that district. He is appointed by the President and can be dismissed by him as well.

    He then hires Assistant US Attorneys (AUSAs) to aid in prosectutions. AUSAs can be fired by their USA any time. Neither the USA nor the AUSAs are civil servants. USAs are political appointees and AUSAs serve completely outside the civil service system in a category of their own. They can be fired and have no civil service protection.

    The AG of the United States does not decide who the USAs in the districts will be. He doesn’t assign them. Each is appointed by the President, often with input from US Senators from that district’s state. And AUSAs are then hired by the USA in their district. They don’t get “tranferred” to another district. So a USA or an AUSA who gets in trouble might lose his job, but he is not going to be transferred to another district.

    STATE prosecutors, who are sometimes called district attorneys (DAs), are often elected. And they hire ADAs to assist them. ADAs also are not civil servants in most cases– they can be fired by the DA. In some states DAs are called state’s attorneys (SAs) or Commonwealth attorneys (CAs) or just called prosecutors.

    Yes, Law and Order takes place in NYC. Specifically, NYC has 5 DAs– one for each of the 5 counties (each county is a district) that comprise the City of NY. The show takes place in the Burough of Manhattan, which is New York County. You’ll sometimes hear them recite something about, “the City, County, and State of New York”. Sam Waterston’s character is an ADA who works for– and can be fired by– the DA of New York County (Adam is the character, I think) who is elected. So all of their authority pertains to just one part of NYC. Not all of NYC, nowhere else in the state, and nothing to do with federal issues.

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