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Missouri’s Republican candidate for the US Senate, Todd Akin, made a naïve remark on anti-abortion issue that has now become the target of thundering criticism. Time Magazine (August 20th, 2012) introduced the Congressman’s disastrous remark as follows:

Asked about his stance on abortion, the Republican Senate candidate attempted to explain his unqualified opposition to it, even in cases of rape: “From what I understand from a doctor, that’s really rare,” Akin said of pregnancies from rape. “If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing ‘down’.”

I cannot understand the ‘legitimacy’ of the term, legitimate rape. OALED defines rape as — note carefully — the crime of forcing someone to have sex with you, especially using violence. Merriam-Webster defines rape as (2) unlawful sexual activity carried out forcibly or under threat of injury against the will, usually of a female.

From both definitions, rape is a full-fledged crime. It’s illegitimate and unlawful from beginning to end. Though Akin spoke of ‘a legitimate rape’, and newspapers keep using this word nonchalantly, isn’t the expression legitimate rape logically preposterous and impossible? In other word, can we say "a legitimate crime"?

I understand legitimate has another meaning of real, and I suspect the Congressman might have used ‘legitimate rape’ to this effect. But to me, legitimate rape just sounds like saying legitimate crime or lawful robbery.

So my question is, is legitimate rape a proper and reasonable English term, one without risk of causing the equivocal confusion that I felt?

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He meant somebody who wasn't lying that an actual rape had occurred, as opposed to someone who was claiming rape when in fact it was purely consensual. –  tchrist Aug 21 '12 at 21:51
If people want to discuss this odious man's views, they should go to skeptics.SE, where the meaning of his words is a hot question. –  FumbleFingers Aug 21 '12 at 22:50
@Fumble finger. I’m not arguing Atkins’s character, or rightness or wrongness of pro-life and women’s rights. I have no interest in political matters in other countries at all because it’s not my problem. My question is simply about the rhetorical problem, i.e. whether the notion of utterly conflicting combination of the words ‘legitimate’ meaning lawful and ‘rape’ meaning crime in one word is viable as a word in English language, which I understand is much logical one than other languages. –  Yoichi Oishi Aug 21 '12 at 23:57
@YoichiOishi-san: Akin was using the word legitimate when he actually meant genuine or authentic. –  Robusto Aug 22 '12 at 1:27
@YoichiOishi-san: Almost certainly Akin thinks many who claim to be rape victims are not in fact genuine. He definitely thinks that the body of a genuine victim would somehow be so traumatised by the attack that conception would not occur. By which reasoning, if the "so-called victim" were to be pregnant, he would say that's proof she must have been a willing participant. Akin is bonkers, frankly. –  FumbleFingers Aug 22 '12 at 2:10
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closed as not constructive by FumbleFingers, John Lawler, tchrist, MετάEd, Mark Beadles Aug 22 '12 at 14:19

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3 Answers

up vote 5 down vote accepted

Originally, legitimate and legal meant "pertaining to (the) law, defined in a law / by law". Later, they acquired a secondary, stronger sense of "allowed or approved by law".

The latter meaning has become so strong in legitimate that it is the first one we think of, almost suppressing the more basic meaning of "defined by law". This already happened with Latin legitimus with the same meaning.

This congressman used legitimate in the sense of "as defined by law", which I think has become so marginal for most speakers of modern English that they feel it is almost incorrect, it is jarring, because "allowed by law" is syntactically always possible as well, and the latter is the dominant sense of the word. So he meant rape as defined by law, but what he said sounded more liked rape as allowed by law, which is of course not possible.

As an alternative, you could say he used it meaning "as allowed by reason", as in a case of rape that reasonably deserves the name. This is by all means possible, but it is an unfortunate choice of words here, because the senses involving the actual law are so much present here that what he says becomes a bit confusing.

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I suspect you may be giving Akin more credit than he deserves. I've just watched this half-wit on tv saying that he meant forcible rape (which therefore wouldn't even include rape where the woman was unconscious through drink/drugs). Belay that - he's a quarter-wit. He went on to say that if a woman is the victim of "forcible rape", her body will somehow naturally prevent conception. So no need to allow abortion in any circumstances. I'm just glad I don't have to vote in America! –  FumbleFingers Aug 21 '12 at 22:44
@Fumble Now that's pretty disingenuous. I mean, maybe he is basing his statements on his own personal experiences. That just means he has a cognitive bias, not that he is stupid. –  KitFox Aug 21 '12 at 22:55
@KitFox: I know it's your job to give due credit to everyone's views, but how can Akin's personal experience be any kind of justification for his views? By that logic, if he'd only ever met one person from Mongolia, and that person happened to be a psychopath, he'd be justified in running on a platform of nuking Mongolia! –  FumbleFingers Aug 21 '12 at 23:03
@Fumble I was casting aspersions on his character. Of all of the women Akin has himself raped, he has only impregnated the ones who were drunk or drugged, but never the ones who fought back. Personal experience. See what I did there? –  KitFox Aug 21 '12 at 23:13
@KitFox: You are indeed a cunning little vixen! I know abortion is still very much a political rather than a personal issue to many Americans, and I definitely get the impression American politicians are more likely to commit rape than their British counterparts - but to me, a man who holds stupid opinions is probably a stupid man. I would not excuse Akin as a hapless victim of cognitive bias; on the basis of 60 seconds I've seen of him on tv, he is both stupid and unpleasant. –  FumbleFingers Aug 21 '12 at 23:23
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Cerberus gives a plausible, but incorrect, interpretation of Akin's words. Akin has a history of trying to pass legislation that redefines rape into "forcible" and non-forcible varieties, such that only "forcible" rape is really rape in his mind. Akin even later clarified in an interview that he meant to use the word "forcible". Thus the correct interpretation for "legitimate" in this sentence is "genuine"

If it is genuinely a case of [forcible] rape...

That is, if the slutty woman didn't entice the helpless man and trap him with her sexual powers, and now lies about it claiming he raped her.

So grammatically, the phrase "a legitimate rape" should really be more like "legitimately a rape".

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I don't see how this is different from my answer at all. I just described the way the word legitimate came to be used in ways similar to this, and you describe one of the outcomes I mentioned, just with some more background on Akin. –  Cerberus Aug 23 '12 at 13:19
@Cerberus The difference is that the word history is irrelevant when someone is using the wrong word, and I wouldn't be surprised if Akin is completely unaware of the other meaning of the word. –  Mr. Shiny and New 安宇 Aug 23 '12 at 20:42
I don't see why it should be irrelevant. It is the main thing that's interesting about this, why it was used this way. Otherwise a complete answer could just be "he used it incorrectly, period". –  Cerberus Aug 24 '12 at 1:13
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We're on a not-so-fine line between "English" and "politics" here, but here's my two cents.

Accorinding to thefreedictionary.com, the word "legitimate" can mean:

  1. Being in compliance with the law; lawful: a legitimate business.
  2. Being in accordance with established or accepted patterns and standards: legitimate advertising practices.
  3. Based on logical reasoning; reasonable: a legitimate solution to the problem.
  4. Authentic; genuine: a legitimate complaint.
  5. Born of legally married parents: legitimate issue.
  6. Of, relating to, or ruling by hereditary right: a legitimate monarch.
  7. Of or relating to drama of high professional quality that excludes burlesque, vaudeville, and some forms of musical comedy: the legitimate theater.

Obviously Mr Akin did not mean definition #1: rape is a crime and therefore cannot be "lawful". #2 and 3 are also pretty unlikely, and 5, 6, and 7 are clearly irrelevant. That leaves #4: "authentic, genuine". That makes perfect sense in context. He was distinguishing an actual, real rape from a false accusation.

In my humble opinion, the uproar here is all about politics. If Mr Akin had referred to a "legitimate robbery" or a "legitimate insider-trader accusation", as opposed to false charges for, say, purposes of insurance fraud or to harm the target of the accusation, I doubt anyone would be making a big deal about his use of the word "legitimate". Yes, some might think of definition 1 and note an amusing juxtaposition of words, but it would be at most an amusing footnote, not the huge storm that has been made of it.

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Here, #4 itself raises a matter of great sensitivity. Many believe (rightly or wrongly) that rape charges are too often treated as inherently dubious, more likely to be "illegitimate" than "legitimate". Akin's unthinkingly qualifying his topic as "legitimate" rape lends credibility to that opinion. Can you seriously imagine Akin finding it necessary to distinguish his response to "legitimate" murder or robbery? As for the "storm" - apparent insensitivity to such matters speaks directly to a candidate's political competence. . . And really:"amusing"? –  StoneyB Aug 22 '12 at 14:45
"Can you seriously imagine Akin finding it necessary to distinguish his response to "legitimate" murder or robbery?" Well, yes, easily. I can readily imagine someone saying, "In a legitimate robbery, we usually find signs of forced entry, so the absence of such evidence is grounds to suspect that this was a false report made to perpetrate an insurance fraud." Or, "The absence of a body, combined with the fact that the supposed victim's financial problems gave him a motive to disappear, lead to questions of whether this was a legitimate murder." –  Jay Aug 23 '12 at 15:38
My "amusing" reference was to the like response to a candidate talking about a "legitimate robbery", like in my previous post. Do you really suppose that if a politician made comments about "legitimate robbery versus false reports" that we would see this kind of firestorm? I doubt it. People might say, "'legitimate robbery', what an odd choice of words" and that would be the end of it. –  Jay Aug 23 '12 at 15:40
And to beat this topic to death: Regardless of whether accusations of rape are too readily dismissed as false or too readily accepted as true, surely no one would seriously suggest that no one, anywhere, in the history of the world, has ever made a false charge of rape. Given that obvious fact, it is perfectly reasonable to distinguish legitimate [sic!] charges from false charges. To say that because a crime is so sensitive and so terrible, that therefore we dare not even discuss the possibility that a charge may be false, seems to me a serious breach of justice to the accused. –  Jay Aug 23 '12 at 15:49
Jay, turn it around. "Mr. Liberal Candidate, do you oppose enforcing sodomy laws in cases of boy-buggery?" "Why, no; I'm reliably informed that in legitimate buggery the boy generally finds some way of forgetting about it." –  StoneyB Aug 23 '12 at 17:47
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