"collateral damage"

Dave Wilton dave at WILTON.NET
Thu Sep 10 03:26:58 UTC 2009

This original sense was still in military use in the mid-1980s when I
trained to be a nuclear target analyst. I never heard "collateral damage"
discussed in terms of conventional artillery fire planning.

For destruction of physical things the only factor the nuclear target
analyst takes into account is the force of the blast. For killing people the
only factor used in planning is prompt radiation (that emitted in the first
minute after the detonation).

All other damage, whether from delayed radiation (e.g., fallout,
neutron-induced gamma radiation), thermal effects (fires and firestorms), or
electromagnetic effects (e.g., electromagnetic plus, radiation effects on
electronics) is "collateral damage," and not taken into account when
planning a nuclear strike.

These other factors are taken into account in calculating the minimum safe
distance from a "friendly" nuclear detonation though. (The planning tables
contained a column showing the distance from a detonation that drapes would
spontaneously ignite; this was a source of much dark humor--although it's
actually a very useful indicator of extent of damage expected from secondary

-----Original Message-----
From: American Dialect Society [mailto:ADS-L at LISTSERV.UGA.EDU] On Behalf Of
Jonathan Lighter
Sent: Wednesday, September 09, 2009 6:54 PM
Subject: "collateral damage"

I can't be categorical about this, but an examination of Google Books
strongly suggests that, as a military idiom, this phrase was first used in
strategy discussions in the late 1940s referring specifically to the use
of nuclear weapons. "Collateral damage" was a fairly straightforward phrase
for any and all death, destruction, short- and long-term damage, radioactive
fallout, etc., beyond the immolation of the immediate target.
If I read the evidence correctly, the phrase gained wider currency in the
upper echelons of the military during the Vietnam War and general
currency only during the Gulf War of 1991.


"There You Go Again...Using Reason on the Planet of the Duck-Billed

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

The American Dialect Society - http://www.americandialect.org

More information about the Ads-l mailing list