On Salvaging
Volume 20 Number 2
Thursday, 29 June 2006 00:00

Nathan Ela[1]

I encountered the first cases of salvaging even before lunch on my first day as a volunteer at Task Force Detainees of the Philippines (TFDP). And I must admit, I didn’t quite know what to make of it. At base, of course, the photos that I saw in the Museum of Courage and Resistance, which portrayed corpses of activists scattered along a road, were simple enough to understand. They hit me in the gut: anger, disgust, sadness.

But it was the captions, the labels that confused me. “Salvagings?” I asked. Like most non-Filipinos, I’d never heard of a human rights violation called salvaging.

“Yes,” Carlo explained, “that’s how many people here talk about summary execution and extrajudicial killings, especially those during martial law.”

Huh, I thought. An established local term in the midst of a discourse that is constantly declaring its universality. Odd. Where did it come from?

A little Googling made clear the answer isn’t so clear. I found a Manila Standard article noting that “Nobody knows how the word salvage has acquired its twisted meaning.”[2] The reporter, though, had heard it came from the word “savaged” – which he felt to be “a more apt description of what happens to suspects who get the treatment from the authorities.” So maybe people just started adding an L. But really?

Then there is the Wikipedia entry on Philippine English.[3] Last I looked, this stated that “salvaging” (as slang for summary execution) had evolved from “salvage” (as in recovered or found) through frequent usage in sentences like “the corpse was salvaged from the Pasig river.” An alternative theory, related by a colleague at TFDP, is that what needed to be salvaged was in fact democracy. When killings were based on this justification – in order to salvage democracy, some people must die (be killed, actually) – they themselves came to be known as salvagings.

Next, there are the sloppiness theories. Columnist Jose Carillo has reported that a government task force report inadvertently used “salvaging” to describe extra-legal executions under martial law.[4] But Carillo doesn’t cite his source, making his theory seem about as plausible as the sloppy-cop variation that I saw in a blog comment:

‘salvage’ came from the police community… The ‘genius’ who coined that term probably was reading something with the line ‘Salvaging the wreck’ and thought that salvaging meant ‘to destroy’ so the term stuck…. our police, the military and even politicians often mangle the English language.[5]

In both cases, “salvaging” is portrayed as a misuse, an instance of linguistic corruption by an influential idiot.[6] Carillo admits it is normal for a society “to do all sorts of wordplay” but maintains the Philippine use of “salvage” to denote its opposite sense “has gone dangerously overboard.” He warns that “we must draw the line somewhere to safeguard language and our value systems.”

But are things really so grim? Is the “misuse” of “salvaging” really a sign that, as Carillo puts it, “a society is generally as lax as its language”? And are things getting so lax that the common term should be abandoned in favor of its more unwieldy polysyllabic cousins – “extrajudicial killing” and “summary execution”? I don’t think so.

Another theory, best explained by writer Jose F. Lacaba,[7] is not only etymologically interesting but also suggests that using “salvage” in a human rights context actually supports a value system – and perhaps a more virtuous system than that implied by the supposedly preferable “universal” terms. Lacaba asserts that the Philippine use of “salvage” began as an anglicization or Englishing of the Tagalog word “salbahe.” And salbahe, he notes, is derived from “salvaje,” a Spanish word meaning wild, undomesticated, savage.

According to Lacaba’s telling, the word that the Spaniards likely used to justify, well, salvaging people who weren’t as “civilized” as them adapted over time and now describes such acts themselves. The etymology encapsulates one basic element of a values system: salvaging is savage. So savage, indeed, that it’s the sort of thing only a colonizer would have a word for. This implicit, etymologically-grounded judgment is only reinforced by the more readily apparent similarity between the two words in English.

Of course, it’s too simplistic to maintain that anyone, state actor or not, who would salvage someone is therefore a savage. For one thing, this diverts attention from forces that form part of the reason salvagings take place at all; rights abusers are often not simply individual savages, but rather people tied into a web of structural violence. For another, there’s a danger that implying people who commit salvaging are simply savages will perpetuate the troubling and false savage/civilized distinction that for centuries now has been used to justify bloodletting and oppression.

Yet compared to the sterility and ungainliness of “extrajudicial killing” and “summary execution,” “salvaging” remains a powerful term. Sure, if you want to be understood at fancy meetings in Geneva, it’s better to use the hegemonic – ahem, “universal” – terms. But what comes along with shifting over to this more technical, “correct” terminology? Perhaps, implicitly accepting a value system that would condone the death penalty.

But wait – wasn’t that just abolished? Yes, in Philippine law it was. But ironically, the death penalty remains alive and well in the technical terms of international human rights. “Summary execution” implies that non-summary executions, those with some sufficient amount of due process, could be acceptable. “Extrajudicial killing” implies that intrajudicial killing may be justifiable. The terms may be helpful in describing atrocities beyond the borders of the Philippines, but they are not necessarily better or any less troubling than “salvaging.”

What drew me to volunteer at TFDP and do research in the Philippines was an interest in understanding the impressions people here have of the human rights cases against Ferdinand Marcos and his estate, especially the impressions of people who have been involved in some way in the cases tried in the U.S. As an American law student, I have seen these cases cited as important legal precedents, landmark victories that helped define the legal standards that allow international human rights claims to be heard in U.S. courts. But while that meaning may be legally accurate, there must be, it seems to me, much more to it. Just as the same event – the killing of an activist – might be described from different perspectives using different terms that are informed by different historical experiences, what I’m finding out here is that the Marcos cases are understood in many different ways and in sometimes very different terms. If you were somehow involved in the cases and have thoughts you would like to share, I would love to hear how you would describe the experience – in your terms.

[1] Nathan Ela is third-year student at Harvard Law School, volunteering with TFDP from June to August 2006. He serves on the boards of Harvard Law Student Advocates for Human Rights and HLS Peace, and is co-editor in chief of Unbound: Harvard Journal of the Legal Left (available online at You can write to him at
[2] Alvin Capino, “No Reprisal Planned by Lucio Tan,” Manila Standard Today, Mar. 14, 2006. Available at (all websites last accessed July 5, 2006).
[4] Jose A. Carillo, “When Wordplay Goes Overboard,” The Manila Times, April 24, 2006. Available at

[5] Screwed-Up AKA SnglGuy, Comment on Warm Stone Blog, Jan. 18, 2006. Available at

[6] Which, granted, may be one way that languages change. My very own president once boasted, “I’ve coined new words, like misunderstanding and Hispanically.” (Radio-Television Correspondents Association dinner, Washington, D.C., March 29, 2001) But then “misunderstanding” actually is a word, and I can thankfully report that I’ve never heard anyone but Bush say something was done Hispanically.

[7] Jose F. Lacaba, Comment appended to “Salvage” entry on the Double-Tongued Word Wrester Dictionary website, Feb. 22, 2006. Available at

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