Tracking an Odd Construction in the Media

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The following usage struck me as odd when I read it in the roundup column that appears on the front page of my daily paper:

Rumsfeld says that George W. Bush was wrong to try to create democracy onto Iraq.

I assumed that “create democracy onto Iraq” was simply an unfortunate stylistic lapse on the part of a local harried reporter. It can’t be easy to fit an entire news item into one coherent sentence of fewer than 50 words, especially under a tight deadline. But then I did a Google search of “create democracy onto” and traced the phrase to the article in which it originated:

Former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, one of the staunchest defenders of the Iraq war, said in an interview with the Times of London that his boss, former President George W. Bush, was wrong to try to create democracy onto Iraq.— David Knowles, Bloomberg

One might attempt to create a democracy in Iraq or even for Iraq, but “to create a democracy onto Iraq” is not idiomatic English. To rule out the possibility that Rumsfeld was responsible for the odd wording, I tracked down his original comment in the Times:

The idea that we could fashion a democracy in Iraq seemed to me unrealistic.

Rumsfeld was not the culprit. The word that he did use, fashion (“to give shape to”) is an appropriate choice in the context of altering an existing system.

Create is from Latin creare, “to procreate or to give birth.” One meaning of the verb create is “to bring into being, to cause to exist,” especially with the sense of “to produce something where nothing was before.”

Some synonyms for create in the sense of produce or make:

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2 thoughts on “Tracking an Odd Construction in the Media”

  1. An alternative would be ‘to try to graft democracy onto Iraq’. Then the writer or editor may have decided to change ‘graft’ to ‘create’ and neglected to changing the preposition. This kind of thing happens often when writing quickly for immediate publication, especially online.

  2. The curious misuse of the preposition “onto” makes me think that the writers may have initially heard the phrase “impose democracy onto Iraq” in the discussion about this issue. Perhaps their limited recall lost the verb “impose” and retained the preposition, and then they just linked the preposition with whatever verb they came up with later. Just a theory.

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