Newspaper interview request

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Wed Mar 26 00:53:29 UTC 2003

In a message dated 03/25/2003 11:29:38 AM Eastern Standard Time,
rchin at PIONEERPRESS.COM writes:

> I'd also like to touch on the origin of other words and phrases that I think
> date back to other wars such as no man's land

Compare "the Neutral Ground", the term applied to the area in Westchester
County, New York,  that during the Revolutionary War was between the British
and American lines.  "Neutral" is misleading; the area was the scene of
brutal fighting and atrocities commited by the "Cow-boys" (pro-British) and
"Skinners" (pro-American).

 and shell shock (World War> I?),

A phrase with a complicated history.  It was invented during World War I as,
believe it or not, a euphemism.  Smarter soldiers and military medics
realized that mental breakdowns in combat were not necessarily caused by
cowardice, as had been assumed since time immemorial, but was sometimes
(actually frequently) due to a soldier's having exceeded his capacity for
handling battlefield stress.  OED gives a first citation of 1915 from the
"Brit. Med. Jnl".  By saying that a soldier had "shell shock" it was possible
to consider him, and for him to consider himself, the victim of a medical
condition that could happen to anyone, rather than as a coward.

Why "shell shock" and not another term?  Almost anyone in combat in World War
I had been through a number of artillery bombardments, so it was possible for
the general public to assume that artillery fire had effects in addition to
giving men physical wounds from "shrapnet" (itself a misnomer, since no one
used true shrapnel in World War I).  That is, some carefully unspecified
effect of artillery fire was as legitimate a reason for a man to need medical
treatment as was a phyical wound from a shell or a bullet.

There was a problem with the term "shell shock".  In the process of serving
its purpose of legitimizing stress reactions in soldiers, it was necessarily
picked up by the general public.  Just as "neurotic" means something quite
different to a layman than it does to a psychiatrist, so the term "shell
shock" came to mean the reaction to any dumbfounding event---the OED gives
the following example from 1978 "Seeking relief from this shell-shock, I
phone a screenwriter friend."

Although "shell shock" with varying meanings continues in popular usage
today, psychologists and psychiatrists weren't happy with it---perhaps
because it was well known among researchers that it could strike men who were
nowhere near artillery fire.  The psychological condition was recategorized
as "psychoneurosis", a mostly Freudian term which the OED dates to 1883.

In World War II the condition began to be referred to as "combat fatigue"
(OED first citation 1943) and "battle fatigue" (not in OED).  Psychology had
made enough advance in public esteem between the World Wars that it was no
longer necessary to come up with a euphemism such as "shell shock", but it
was permissible to use an honestly descriptive term such as "combat fatigue".

(Not everyone accepted the idea, though.  General Patton, who if not
necessarily sane was still an acute observer of the battlefield, still got
into trouble by slapping soldiers who were probably correctly diagnosed as
combat fatigue patients.)

One vairation was "the thousand-yard stare", a term which an article in Life
magazine during World War II used, with a painting of a victim.  This
painting was for many years and probably still is hanging on the wall of a
public corridor in the Pentagon---I have personally seen it there.  (Many
paintings from the WWII Life collection are on display in the Pentagon, which
as well as being an office building doubles as an art museum.)

Nowadays the terms "combat fatigue" and "battle fatigue", although still
recognized by the general public, have been retired by psychologists in favor
of "PTSD" ("Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder").  A new euphemism?  NO WAY.
"PTSD" recognizes that the same syndrome suffered by soldiers who have seen
too much combat stress is also suffered by people who have never been on a
battlefield.  Specifically PTSD is a common aftereffect with women who have
been raped.  (Also of men who have been raped).

>demilitarized zone

the OED gives "demilitarized" a first citation of 1883 and to my surprise,
since I thought it first appeared at the end of the Korean War, the following
1934 citation: "Ismet Pasha made some passing reference to the possibility of
establishing demiltarized zones in Thrace>"

"DMZ" or "demilitarized zone" has in recent years become a technical term in
computers---it is a section of a computer network which is deliberately
isolated from inputs that could bring viruses or other problems to the
computers on the far side of the DMZ.

> and brainwashing (Korean War?)

Yes, OED gives 1950 as first citation.  Also by 1955 the term had acquired
figurative uses, such as "On this subject---and others---the Teans have
brain-washed themselves so thoroughly..."

> body count

I have supplied the OED with a citation from H. Beam Piper's science fiction
novel "Lord Kalvan of Otherwhen", beginning of chapter 18 (pagination varies
in different editions).  The book was published in 1965 but the text had been
written a year or two earlier, since Piper died in 1964.  Hence it is safe to
say that the term was in existence before it was used in the Vietnam War.

                               - James A. Landau

PS  America On-Line finally took time out from trying to become Anti-America
On-Line and produced a lovely headline:  "True Grit in the Desert".  Also on
AOL, CBS News quoted Rumsfield as warning the Iraqis against certain
regrettable actions, the list ending with "and destrying damns".

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