War has a way with words

New phrases might work their way into everyday language

For the Record

March 23, 2003|By Susan Reimer | Susan Reimer,Sun Staff

World War II gave us beachhead, firepower and foxhole.

Vietnam contributed friendly fire, grunt and hawks and doves to everyday language.

But for the war in Iraq to contribute any lasting vocabulary to the English language, "it has to be the long and painful experience that everyone hopes it won't be," says Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford University linguist.

The Persian Gulf conflict is only days old, and already certain words are sounding very familiar: embedded and shock and awe, among them.

But they will fade, Nunberg says, just as weapons-grade did. Used to describe the anthrax contamination during the scare of 2001, it was also used to describe the relative strength of other, less threatening, substances.

"Hear anybody talk about weapons-grade salsa lately?" the author of The Way We Talk Now asked. Mother of all ... survived so long after the first Persian Gulf War because it became a punch line in jokes, he said.

"Shock and awe might have a chance at that," he said. "But most will just be military terms used by journalists -- who want to sound like they are in the know -- and they will fade."

"To affect the language, it has to be an event that pervades the ordinary life of Americans for a long time, and changes the way we live.

"I mean, when was the last time you heard anybody use the phrase hanging chad?"

An Iraq war glossary, with basic definition and usage:

* audible -- football term for changing a play at the last moment, used to describe the decision to alter U.S. attack plans. "We can take a chance and break out of our pattern and call an audible, as one aide described it ... and change the play. Try to do a ... pre-emptive strike of a pre-emptive war. And the president said go ahead." (NBC's Tim Russert on Today, 3 / 20 / 03)

* coalition of the willing -- describes the countries backing the U.S. war on Iraq; first uttered in November. "In stark terms, Bush essentially gave the council two options: It can authorize war ... or it can fail to authorize war and thus cause the United States and a 'coalition of the willing' to invade Iraq without U.N. backing. (The Sun, 3 / 17 / 03).

* decapitation -- used to describe the aim of the war's opening missile attack against Saddam Hussein. "The bombing raid, which lasted no more than 30 minutes, was what military officials call a decapitation strike. The apparent aim was to kill the Iraqi dictator and either prompt his army to surrender or ... create chaos in ... Iraq's leadership at the outset of the war." (The Sun, 3 / 20 / 03)

* embedded -- describes journalists living and moving with U.S. troops. "[Defense Secretary Donald] Rumsfeld agreed that he would look into ways to 'embed' reporters in units ..." (The Sun, 10 / 24 / 02)

* JDAMs -- Joint Direct Attack Munitions, weapons that rely on satellite guidance to find their targets. "JDAMs were used hundreds of times in the Kosovo campaign in 1999, their combat debut. Thousands have been dropped in Afghanistan." (The Sun, 3 / 4 / 03)

* shock and awe -- term for an attack of great destructive power, originally articulated in 1996 in an obscure Pentagon publication by military planners seeking ways for U.S. armed forces to achieve "rapid dominance" over a battlefield foe. "Officials said the intent, if Bush decides war is necessary, is to launch an air assault to 'shock and awe' Iraqi defenders." (The Sun, 3 / 6 / 03)

* target of opportunity -- a military target that suddenly presents itself, as in the possible location of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad Mar. 19. "Bush gave the go-ahead after intelligence officials told him that a target of opportunity, involving members of the Iraqi leadership, had presented itself ..." (The Sun, 3 / 20 / 03)

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