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Another language query

July 27th, 2004

Following on the question of whether Alan Woods’ description of me as “quite bright” was high or faint praise (Henry Farrell at Crooked Timber discusses the US-UK division on this), I have another question.

I’ve noticed that the New York Times uses the word “debtor” interchangeably to mean either “person who owes money”, as in this story which refers to debtors in bankruptcy or “person who is owed money”, as in this story on Iraq and this on Mike Tyson.

Is this standard US usage, or just bad subediting?

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  1. July 27th, 2004 at 15:07 | #1


    I’m inclined to say that it’s just bad editing. However, ‘debtor’ can also have the connotation that the debtor has sinned against one. So maybe those referred to have sinned against Mike Tyson and Iraq by extending an unreasonably optimistic line of credit.

  2. James Farrell
    July 27th, 2004 at 15:23 | #2

    You can’t intend this question seriously, John. Which is not to say that it could never become standard usage. ‘I could care less!’ seems to be standard usage in the US, even though it says the opposite of what people mean by it.

  3. Fyodor
    July 27th, 2004 at 15:32 | #3


    Looks like bad editing. According The American Heritage Dictionary (I’m quoting from dictionary.com here), a “debtor” is:

    1. One that owes something to another.

    2. One who is guilty of a trespass or sin; a sinner.

    Mike Tyson certainly falls under the second category, but where the owing of money is involved, I think the first meaning is clear. You only have to think of the word’s opposite, “creditor” to get the logic right.

  4. July 28th, 2004 at 02:56 | #4

    I’ve seen this misuse of “debtor” several times in the past year. To me, it seems like people just started misusing it suddenly. It’s driving me nuts.

  5. Adam Kent
    July 28th, 2004 at 18:18 | #5

    Perhaps we can complicate matters even further by coining the term “debtee” to refer to the person who is owed? Or more correctly I suppose, the one who puts another “in debt”. English is a “living language” after all… 😉

    Oh dear, seems like the lawyers beat us to it:

    n. 1. (Law) One to whom a debt is due; creditor; – correlative to debtor.

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