Cartel Flip-Flop

Contemporary politicians love to call opponents who have actually learned something and as a result changed their minds “flip-floppers.”

Some words are “flip-floppers” too.

“Nice” was originally an insult, meaning “foolish.” It came to mean “precise” as in “making a nice distinction.” For a long time it meant “lascivious”'; but later it could mean “chaste,” so the expression “a nice girl” flipped to have exactly the opposite meaning. Today it usually means “likable.”

Another word that has gone through a couple of flips is “cartel.”

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, “cartel” was first used as the term for “a written challenge, a letter of defiance.” Its meaning evolved into something almost the opposite: “a written agreement.” Eventually its use was narrowed to define cooperative agreements between businesses to prevent competition and create monopolies.

Latin American drug organizations are now called “cartels” even though they are seldom monopolistic. One of the main characteristics of the Mexican “drug cartels” is their intense competitiveness—just the opposite of the behavior of traditional cartels.

The Wikipedia entry for “cartel” doesn’t even mention this contemporary usage (at least as of this writing). But there is a separate entry for "drug cartel" which says “Drug cartels are criminal organizations developed with the primary purpose of promoting and controlling drug trafficking operations. They range from loosely managed agreements among various drug traffickers to formalized commercial enterprises. The term was applied when the largest trafficking organizations reached an agreement to coordinate the production and distribution of cocaine. Since that agreement was broken up drug cartels are no longer actually cartels in the proper sense of the word, but the term stuck and is now popularly used to refer to any criminal narcotics related organization. . . .”

I like Wikipedia and use it often, but one of its weaknesses as compared to a traditional encyclopedia is inconsistency among related articles.

At any rate, the word “cartel” is losing its traditional modern meaning and may confuse readers when they encounter it in historical contexts referring to organizations like US Steel and Standard Oil.

There’s no point in calling the journalistic use of “cartel” an error since it now dominates. But it’s good to also know what the word meant before it flip-flopped.

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