Subvert and Suborn
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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