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Jack Smith

Naming the nightmare: Language is but one victim that withers in the shadow of the mushroom cloud

October 08, 1986|Jack Smith

Harold Willens, the Los Angeles businessman who has given much of his time and money to promote nuclear disarmament, has asked me for help in thinking up a word for our predicament.

"Because I was born and lived until the age of 8 not far from Chernobyl (in the Ukrainian area of the Soviet Union)," he writes, "the nuclear accident there stirred strong--and diverse--reactions, including, 'There but for the grace of God go I.'

"The one that lingers longest and strongest, and brings me to you, is the feeling that runaway technology poses a potentially terminal threat which might be more effectively dealt with if it had a name .

"The best I can do so far is technophilia --and it's my belief that you and your readers offer a unique method of ascertaining, so far as is possible, if there is such a word already, and if a better one can be created. . . ."

Mr. Willens flatters me. My vocabulary is very limited, given the 500,000 words or so in the English language. I don't know of a word that expresses Mr. Willens' meaning.

First, we have to be sure what his meaning is. If, as he implies, he seeks a word that expresses the terminal threat implicit in nuclear technology, and, by extension, the nuclear arms race, then technophilia is certainly close.

Since techno is the combining form of technology and philia means "an abnormal attraction to," then technophilia means "an abnormal attraction to technology."

Specifically, I'm sure, he means an abnormal attraction to nuclear weapons. There is no doubt that we are all threatened with sudden death because of our abnormal attraction to nuclear weapons. It is easy to say that we are not actually attracted to nuclear weapons but that we simply have to have them because the Russians are abnormally attracted to them. Of course that is the sort of logic that is now in control of the world.

As we saw in that wildly comic and terrifying movie, "Dr. Strangelove: Or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Bomb," we tend to love the monsters we create.

Also, we tend to love anything with which we can annihilate the others .

People who hate the atom bomb and assume it will not be used, because it is too horrible to contemplate, forget that the human race has never yet put aside, without using, any weapon it has invented. The tides of empire have turned on one new weapon after another: first iron, then the longbow, then gunpowder, then the machine gun, then TNT, and finally the atom bomb.

Today each of us sits on a pile of bombs big enough to destroy the other several times over, playing poker with them, bluffing with them, developing a whole new international jargon to discuss their use and control, and kidding ourselves that by the year 2000 or 2022, they will all be dismantled and buried and no new ones will be built.

I think that is the situation for which Mr. Willens wants a word.

I'm not sure I can invent a good one. Perhaps the Pentagon or our State Department could think one up. But their genius seems to lie in the invention of words that mean just the opposite of what they say. These words sound benign, though their true meanings, like the underside of a rock, are ugly.

In his Doublespeak Dictionary, William Lambdin defines many of them for us. Calculated risk , for example, means "we have every confidence that our plan will work, but just in case it fails, remember that we warned against it."

Cookie cutter is a Pentagon pet name for the neutron bomb. "So called because it can be controlled to kill people in a geographic area of any shape--heart-shaped, diamond-shaped--just like the cookies Mother makes."

According to Lambdin, nuclear deterrents is "a phrase that makes weapons sound as harmless as wash-day detergents; and nuclear disarmament means "rearmament." Preemptive offensive means an invasion.

Columnist R. H. Boyce has defined East-West dialogue as meaning "failure to communicate between us and Russia." He has also translated other common terms as follows:

Agreement in principle --when you concede that the other side is right but you stick to your stand anyway; frank and candid exchange of views-- what diplomats say of talks that made no progress whatever. . . .

By the way, in Pentagonese a nuclear bomb is called "a reduced blast-enhanced radiation device." That doesn't sound so bad, does it?

Finally, we have zero-defect system , "a phrase meaning cover stories and lies devised to keep information from the public."

Doublespeak and gobbledygook are the languages used by government to conceal its errors and its ignoble intentions. Given this cloud of gas that all of us breathe, I hesitate to add a word to the language for fear that it will come to mean its opposite.

Certainly Mr. Willens' technophilia aptly describes the feeling of our industrial-military complex for the grandeur of our nuclear arsenal, but I'm afraid that somehow we will be led to think that technophilia is sane, instead of mad.

Or many people not familiar with Greek suffixes will mistake it for technophobia , which means a fear of technology, and Mr. Willens' purpose would be traduced.

Maybe something less academic would work--say bombfix, meaning a mind fix that favors the atom bomb as our ultimate umbrella of security.

Also it suggests that we're in a fix.

Which we are.

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