Wondering about 'wander' in lexicon of war


February 24, 2002|By Chicago Tribune

If FDR had had his way, World War II would have been known forevermore as the "War for Survival."

Tough luck, Mr. Roosevelt. Not even the president has the power to decide what terminology people will adopt in everyday life.

"World War II" won the popular vote in a slam dunk. And, in a flourish of linguistic retro-fitting, what had been the "Great War" thenceforth became known as World War I.

So dictionary editors are keeping an ear close to the ground these days, tracking not only all the new military terms, but how regular people are using the language of the war in their day-to-day lives.

So which terms stemming from Sept. 11 and the U.S. response will make it into mainstream English?

Dictionary editors already have a short list of terms likely to make it: 9 / 11, sky marshal, daisy-cutter (the bomb) and Ground Zero (in its new meaning).

A long list of other terms related to Sept. 11 and its aftermath are being fed into databases. Those words will be analyzed, probably for years, before a decision is made on including them.

In Chicago, Erin McKean is keeping her eyes on such words as "wander," which in this case refers not to the act of moving around aimlessly but to the airport workers who wave the security wands of metal detectors over the bodies of passengers.

"I like 'wander,' " said McKean, senior editor of U.S. dictionaries for Oxford University Press.

Anne Soukhanev, editor of the Microsoft Encarta College Dictionary, said that "wanding," the verb, will make it into Encarta. "Taliban" and "al-Qaida" probably will, too, she said. But "al-Qaida" is a harder call for Joseph Pickett, executive editor of Houghton Mifflin's American Heritage Dictionary. His publication doesn't generally define such groups.

Pickett noted that, even before Sept. 11, his dictionary had added terms such as "burkha," the head-to-toe garment worn by some Muslim women, as part of an effort to include more terms related to Arabic and the Muslim world. Pickett also is watching "weaponize," a word that has been around the block a few times but has taken on an additional meaning, as in "weaponizing" anthrax.

The time since Sept. 11 isn't considered nearly long enough to determine which words will have staying power. That can take years.

"We're looking at a very, very narrow slice of linguistic time," Pickett said, "even by the sort of speeded-up pace of modern society."

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