Illegal, illegitimate

The other day I listened to a discussion between József Debreczeni, the well known publicist, and László Bartus, a journalist and author of several books on politics who in the last few years has been living in the United States. He is the owner, editor, and publisher of Amerikai-Magyar Népszava, the oldest Hungarian-language paper in North America. Bartus, while talking about Viktor Orbán's attitude toward the government, mentioned that the Fidesz party chief calls Ferenc Gyurcsány's government illegal. József Debreczeni, who in his earlier life was a high school teacher, promptly corrected him and proceeded to explain the alleged difference between "illegal" and "illegitimate." The explanation was not new to me. I was on the receiving end of the lecture about two years ago when Viktor Orbán first called the Gyurcsány government "illegitimate." On the list I was monitoring I was told that there is a huge difference between "illegal" and "illegitimate." I was just ignorant. The current Hungarian government was "legal" in the sense that its election conformed to the existing laws of the country, but it was "illegitimate" in the sense that it was not supported by a majority of the population. Thus, in Orbán's clever usage, if a government is not popular it is "illegitimate."

Now "legal" and "legitimate" are really synomyms of each other in ordinary usage, whether in English or Hungarian. Webster's gives as one of the meanings of "legal" "deriving authority from law." The word "legitimate" means the same thing: "accordant with law." The Hungarian situation is exactly the same. According to Magyar értelmező kéziszótár (the Hungarian equivalent of Webster's) "legitim" means "törvényes, jogszerű" while "legális" means "jogos, jogszerű." In English: both mean lawful, according to the law. Thus they are synonyms. So how did we end up making a distinction between "legal" and "legitimate" or rather "illegal" and "illegitimate"?

I don't know the exact provenance of this forced distinction, though if I recall correctly it had its roots in some social science theory (probably obscure since I can't find it now). I do remember that when Viktor Orbán invoked the alleged distinction between these two adjectives, I argued that only a linguistically tone deaf person could claim that one meant illegal and the other unpopular. I didn't win the argument, and ever since I have been annoyed that some political commentators, for example, József Debreczeni, whose work I very much admire, fall for Fidesz linguistics and use this contrived distinction to befuddle Hungarians. Viktor Orbán is a master of linguistic manipulation, and he has conned the best and the brightest.

Debreczeni certainly fell for Orbán's distinction. I found an article of his, written in 2006 right after  Orbán announced the lawfulness but illegitimacy of the government, in which he explained the distinction and complained that people mix up the two distinct concepts. (No wonder, that was exactly the devilish plan!) According to Debreczeni, "legitimacy is a political-sociological concept while legality is a legal concept." Ah, so!

Unfortunately, the program in which the Debreczeni-Bartus discussion took place (József Orosz's program on Klub Rádió) ended before Bartus could lambaste the decoupling of these two words. I remember when Orbán's government around 2000 was more unpopular than the Gyurcsány government has been at any time since its establishment. Was it illegitimate?  Both the George Bush administration and the Democratically controlled Congress have disastrous approval ratings. Are they both illegitimate? Well, should I continue? I do hope that this artificial, unnatural distinction will soon be debunked because it serves only to assist one person's political goals.

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It would be a way, a good way, of looking at it, indeed.
But for the sake of an academic exercise why don’t we accept and use the distinction, reductio ad absurdum, and apply it to some other fenomena in the political realm of Hungary. Better yet, why don’t we see if the distinction would fit some of the fidesz shenanigans.
Example: when the court exonerated Orban from the charge of corruption in connection his Tokaj business dealings, his conduct may have been deemed as legal, but in fact was illegitimate, because nobody accepted the legalistic red herring he used to exculpate himself.
Example: after losing the election, he claimed that the loss was due to MSzP organization that was better then his, he was in his right to say anything he wanted, but having lied that it was illegal, his claim was truly illegitimate.
Why is it that the socialists and the SzDSz are so stupid that they are unable to exploit these obvious opportunities to prove the dishonesty and calumny of the fidesz? This is what really bothers me.


The “illegal but legitimate” or “legal but illegitimate” has been used in other context, it´s not something invented by O.V. and Fidesz.
The Kosovo Commission for example came to the conclusion that the NATO intervention was var legitimate but not legal. Legitimate by its purpose but not legal because it was not conducted according to the UN treaty.
The election won by the MSZP-SZDSZ was the opposite – legal but not legitimate. That´s the truth. The government kept the power by tricks and lies, leading Hungary to moral and economic crisis that the majority of the people (except the elite) suffering deeply

Eva S. Balogh

Ozcar: “The election won by the MSZP-SZDSZ was the opposite – legal but not legitimate. That´s the truth. The government kept the power by tricks and lies, leading Hungary to moral and economic crisis that the majority of the people (except the elite) suffering deeply”
We don’t agree. They were not lying. All the data at their disposal at the time were real. They were not promising the world as Fidesz did although Orbán later claimed that they knew the truth. What they didn’t tell was that the convergence program and the interest of the country demands belt tightening. As for the suffering. It wasn’t that great especially given the 35% growth in real wages in the previous few years. The lowering of the deficit was spectacular especially given the relatively little loss (6%) in real wages.

Odin's lost eye
When talking of a government in English we tend to use two Latin phrases. These are ‘Dejure’ – meaning lawful and ‘Defacto’ – meaning a particular organisation is the government. A government which has seized power by a ‘coupe d’ etat’ can be recognised as ‘Defacto but not Dejure’. An election was held in this country (Hungary) and no party had an overall majority so two parties formed a coalition and became ‘The Government’. One of the partners in the coalition later left ‘The Government’ and you now have a ‘Minority Government’. This ‘Minority Government’ will continue in power until the remainder of the MPs decide to pass a vote of ‘No Confidence’ in ‘The Government’. If no new government can be formed then a General Election must be held. That is it and all about it! A Minority Government is neither illegal nor is it illegitimate. It may be seen by some as immoral, to some, but it is still both a DeJure and a Defacto government. It says a lot about the degree of political awareness of the people to believe that a Minority Government is either illegal or illegitimate. But I suppose that a people who have… Read more »
Eva S. Balogh

Odin: “A Minority Government is neither illegal nor is it illegitimate.”
The situation is worse than that. Orbán called the coalition government illegitimate.


I disagree with you: in English, although ‘illegal’ and ‘illegitimate’ are broadly synonymous, the former has a much more specific meaning:
“If something is illegal, the law says that it is not allowed.”
“Illegitimate is used to describe activities and institutions that are not in accordance with the law or with accepted standards of what is right.”
Both definitions from Collins Cobuild ALED
So if Orbán argued that popularity is an accepted standard of what is right in a democracy (and that, unfortunately, seems fair enough), he could say that Gyurcsány’s government was illegitimate without being illegal.
However, this argument was conducted in Hungarian so involves the usual difficulties of translation: look at this discussion inspired by one of your recent posts:
Vándorló makes the interesting posts.
In general, most dictionaries are useless at providing definitions that reflect actual usage. Native speakers know how words are used. Bilingual dictionaries like Országh, often create more difficulties than they solve.

Eva S. Balogh

Adrian: “So if Orbán argued that popularity is an accepted standard of what is right in a democracy (and that, unfortunately, seems fair enough), he could say that Gyurcsány’s government was illegitimate without being illegal.”
It may be so in political science (Locke, etc.) but in ordinary speech “legitim” and “legális” approximately mean the same thing. Bringing this into ordinary language of politics serves only one purpose: to confuse people. And he managed to do that. He purposely named lack of popularity illegitimacy and thus illegality.

Odin's lost eye
@Adrian if I may suggest that part of the problem is that a translation is occurring here and things often get lost in translation. Actually the word ‘illegitimate’ implies that something is without a legal foundation or a basis in law. That is all. By the way the word ‘illegitimate’ is normally used to describe a child born out of wedlock. That is a person whose birth occurred without its parents being joined in ‘Holy Wedlock’ or whatever. The child exists and to have it is not an illegal act. It may be morally wrong but morality is not part of western law. The word ‘Illegal’ is just what it says, ‘against the law’! Professor you have written *** “Odin: “A Minority Government is neither illegal nor is it illegitimate.” The situation is worse than that. Orbán called the coalition government illegitimate.” *** If you will agree that all political parties are (unless they are composed of ‘biologically exact clones’) are by their very nature a coalition of its members. Since no two party members are exactly the same, some like tea for breakfast, others like coffee. Because a party is a coalition then Orbán is implying that only a… Read more »

I take your point that by far the most common use of illegitimate in English is to indicate birth outside of marriage. Perhaps Orbán wanted to indicate that Gyurcsány’s government were all bastards! Your comments reinforce the distinction between ‘illegal’ and ‘illegitimate’.
As for the Hungarian “legitim” and “legális”: I am working on a straw poll among my colleagues and students – who are far more qualified to speak about Hungarian than I am. I will report back later.
I agree with your observations about ‘popularity’ but you are disagreeing with Orbán’s not my view of the matter. My view of democracy is that it is the best way of getting rid of a bad government, not of choosing a good government (I thought Churchill said something like this, but I can’t find the quote).

Eva S. Balogh

As for illegitimate ~illegal controversy. Let me quote something here from Kenneth G. Wilson (1923–). The Columbia Guide to Standard American English. 1993.
illegal, illegitimate, illicit (adjs.)
These three are synonyms, but there are some useful distinctions among them. Illegal means “against the law, unlawful”: It was illegal to possess a weapon of that sort. Illicit means almost the same thing, “unlawful, prohibited by law, improper,” but many of its uses suggest the furtive or clandestine nature of acts so characterized: The family had been operating an illicit still. Illegitimate overlaps with the other two in the general sense of “unlawful,” but it has other, more specialized meanings as well: “a bastard, born out of wedlock,” as in He was an illegitimate child, and “contrary to logic,” as in Their conclusions were clearly illegitimate, or “against the accepted usage of words,” as in She said that irregardless was an illegitimate word and so not a word at all.
And now more thing. While in English “illegitimate” also means “a child born out of wedlock,” in Hungarian it does not. They use the Hungarian translation of the word: törvénytelen. Literally translated: without law.


So no chance Orbán was calling Gyurcsány a bastard then, unlike the good John Major remarking on his colleagues:
I’m beginning to think we have discovered one of the ways the UK and the US are two nations divided by a common tongue: legal/legitimate are more synonymous in US English than in UK English.
There is no more on the distinction in Fowler’s “Modern English Usage”, 1926 than “The l[egitimate] drama: … the body of plays, Shakesperian or otherwise or other, that have a recognised theatrical and literary merit.”. Another of those specialised meanings that are neatly summarised in the COBUILD definition.
More surprisingly, there is nothing in Gower’s “The complete plain words”, 1986. Gower was specifically written as a style manual for the civil service, where the significance of the distinction between illegal and illegitimate may take on real significance.
Among the corpus examples underlying the COBUILD definition of illegitimate is this, taken from US written English:
“Their kids talk about making it the easy way, the illegitimate way.”
Now, as an British English teacher I would probably correct this to ‘illegal’ depending on the context. Unfortunately, my American colleagues have returned to the US so I can’t compare notes.