Washington Post, Them's Fightin' Words: War Lingo Rushes to the Front

James A. Landau JJJRLandau at AOL.COM
Wed Nov 14 01:32:16 UTC 2001

In a message dated 11/12/2001 9:34:07 AM Eastern Standard Time,
drew.danielson at CMU.EDU writes:

> http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/articles/A5866-2001Nov10.html

which includes the following:

Them's Fightin' Words: War Lingo Rushes to the Front

By Ken Ringle
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, November 10, 2001; Page C01

In his 1975 landmark cultural study, "The Great War and Modern Memory," Paul
Fussell notes that the idioms of the English language were considerably more
peaceful before World War I. It was the immersion of an entire generation of
literate civilians in the hell of the western front, he says, that ushered
into the civilian vocabulary such images as being "shell-shocked" by a
"barrage" of complaints in a political or economic "no man's land."
Military jargon remained largely the province of a professional military
class until the mass conscription of the Great War. Then we began speaking of
being "torpedoed" by some "crummy" (meaning full of trench lice or "lousy")
event, and began referring to the "rank and file" and to "platoons" and
"sectors" in civilian life.

I, on the contrary, suspect that most wars cause military jargon to enter
civilian jargon.  In English, for example:

The French and Indian War/Seven Years War (which lasted 10 years in North
America) popularized "ranger" (from the fame of Rogers' Rangers, and Rogers,
by the way, was the first person to write down the name "Oregon") and
introduced "Pontiac" and "Black Hole of Calcutta".

The Revolutionary War popularized "cowboy", introduced "Minuteman",  gave new
meanings to "Patriot" and "Tory" (the latter in the United States only.  In
Canada the term is "Loyalist".  Imagine a Canadian battery in the Persian
Gulf gallantly shooting down Scuds with their Loyalist missiles), and
introduced "Benedict Arnold" as a metaphor.

The Napoleonic Wars gave us "Napoleonic" (of course) plus "quickstep/quick
time", "shrapnel", "Rosetta Stone", several terms that include "Wellington",
and that Waterloo of metaphors, "Waterloo".  The war also popularized another
future car name, "corvette".

The Crimean War gave us "Red Cross" and an unexpected word, "cardigan".

The US Civil War (Great Rebellion, War Between the States, etc.) popularized
"bummer", "gunboat", and "sharpshooter" and introduced "ironclad",
"greenback", "puptent", "Gatling gun", and "chief of staff".  It also gave
new meanings to "contraband" (an escaped slave), "rebel", and "Confederate"
and produced the metaphor "Confederate money."  Finally, the Civil War
indirectly produced "Ku Klux Klan", whose name is probably derived from the
sound made by cocking the Springfield and Enfield rifles that were the main
rifles used in the war.  ("Ku Klux Klan" is therefore fake Greek for
"Brotherhood of the Cocked Rifle").

"Machine gun" is a joint product of the Civil War and the Franco-Prussian war.

I should also mention the dubious legend that "gringo" comes from "Green Grow
the Lilacs", allegedly the marching song of US troops in the Mexican War.  (A
more likely theory is that it is derived from "griego" ("Greek"), resembling
English 'is all Greek to me".


It's as if our whole center of gravity has been impacted by a bunker-buster
and suffered collateral damage. <snip> Such terms as "plausible deniability,"
"collateral damage" and "friendly fire" entered civilian discourse half a
world away from the [Vietnam] war  </quote>

I seem to recall that the word "deniability" was used frequently in
discussions of the U-2 that was shot down over Russia back in 1960, well
before the Vietnam War.

On the other hand, I do not recall ever hearing "collateral damage" (which
always sounds to me like a description of a bomb hitting the storeroom of a
pawnshop) until the Gulf War, specifically during the "Desert Shield" buildup
to the war, when reporters gleefully (or so it seemed) informed us that the
military used "collateral damage" to mean "civilian casualties."  I recently
read _War in the Time of Peace_ by David Halberstam (a civilian)a, who uses
"collateral damage" freely, without definition.  I have also heard there is
an Arnold Schwartzeneger movie coming out with that title (considering the
only two Schwartzeneger movies I have ever seen have been "Twins" and
"Junior", I can't imagine what it will be about).  HOWEVER, I cannot recall a
single instance of a military officer being QUOTED as using the term
"collateral damage", which leads me to the suspicion that the military does
not use that euphemism and what we have here is an urban legend among
reporters, each one quoting the previous without bothering to think whether
they have actually heard military using the term.  Comments?

                    - Jim Landau

More information about the Ads-l mailing list