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Wordsleuth (2003, vol. 36, 2): A War of Words

Katherine Barber
(Terminology Update, Volume 36, Number 2, 2003, page 27)

Ever since war became another kind of "reality TV" with the Gulf War of 1991, we have seen how the mass media can almost instantly promote a word from the status of military jargon or slang to common parlance. This tendency has only increased with the most recent war on Iraq. As I pointed out in my last article, however, the words that strike us as "brand new" may only be, to use the euphemism of second-hand-car dealers, "new to you." Let us look, then, at some of the buzzwords that we have been hearing so often (alas, much too often) in the past little while and what Oxford Dictionary files reveal about them.

REGIME CHANGE: How innocent and non-violent it sounds, rather like the changing of the guard. Certainly no 2000-pound bombs involved. And indeed, our first evidence for it, from 1965, simply refers to the replacement of one government by another. But "regime" has had increasingly derogatory connotations ever since it entered English at the time of the French Revolution, designating the "ancien régime." Now, a regime is almost by definition something nasty, and one supposes that the users of this word hope listeners will acquiesce in the thought that changing it (by whatever means possible) is A Good Thing.

GROUND TRUTH: At Pentagon briefings, when journalists ask inconvenient questions about whose missile it was that wiped out a street market, the briefers say they are waiting for "ground truth." Although one might be tempted to think that this is truth that has been pulverized until unrecognizable as such, the term actually originated in remote sensing in the sixties, designating information obtained by direct measurement at ground level as opposed to that acquired by aerial or satellite images. It has gradually extended its meaning to "information that has been checked at source."

SUICIDE BOMBER: This is a word I am sure we wish we were not so familiar with. We feel that it cropped up out of nowhere in the mid-nineties, but in fact the term was being used to designate kamikaze pilots as early as 1941.

WEAPONIZE: This word has been much vilified as a nasty neologism. I am not sure why self-appointed "language commentators" reserve such vitriol for words ending in the very convenient (and very ancient) suffix -ize, but they have apparently been complaining about it since at least 1594, according to the OED. "Weaponize," no matter how new it may seem, is now well into middle age, having been in use since at least 1956.

WEAPONS OF MASS DESTRUCTION: A term for which we have evidence dating back to 1983, but which probably is older still than that. Of course, considering the frequency with which it is uttered these days, people have realized that it is a bit of a mouthful and have started to substitute the much snappier "WMDs," which like all acronyms also has the advantage of distancing us from the unpleasant meaning of the words.

ARAB STREET: With all this unpleasantness going on, one has to wonder what the ordinary citizen is thinking, hence the newly popular term "Arab street" meaning public opinion in Arabic countries or among Arabic communities. This was, however, found in political science writing as early as 1977.

Although the above-mentioned words are older than one would probably think, many of the terms we are hearing bandied about are indeed mere teenagers. Among these (with our current earliest dates for evidence) are:

  • bioterrorism (1987)
  • bunker-busting (1987)
  • bunker-buster (1991)
  • asymmetrical warfare (1995)

"Embedded media," "decapitation strike," and "shock and awe," however, may indeed be children of the 21st century, in more ways than one.

Much is made in every war of the tendency to use new euphemisms ("friendly fire" and "collateral damage" were the big euphemisms of the 1991 Gulf War) to disguise the horrific realities of conflict. Before we hastily condemn the current mouthpieces of the military for being more weaselly than their forebears, however, we would do well to consider the word "casualty," which simply meant "a chance occurrence" when it entered the language in the 1400s. Over the course of 400 years it travelled a downward path from "accident" to "bad accident" to "accident causing injury" to "wounded person" to "death." The Duke of Wellington referred to "casualties" in the Napoleonic Wars; no doubt the Iron Duke would acquit himself very well at a Pentagon briefing.