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Fighting Words : Pilot's Lingo and the Military's 'Alphabet Soup' Are Infiltrating TV News and, Ultimately, Our Language


Patriots take out Scuds. Tomahawks blast command and control centers. Warthogs stalk mobile Scud launchers. Wild Weasels smash Iraqi radars. The goal is "assertive disarmament."

The Persian Gulf War, televised live around the world, has had an instant, if limited, impact on the English language. Ranging from terse to florid to bellicose to technological to bureaucratic, words of the Iraqi conflict are becoming the common currency of everyday talk.

"Millions of people now say Scud without explaining what they mean," says writer and lexicographer Paul Dickson, referring to the Iraqi missiles fired at Israel and Saudi Arabia.

Others, Dickson notes, now casually talk of "triple-A," the military term for anti-aircraft artillery.

"These are people who usually say triple-A and they mean the automobile club," says Dickson, who researched military-speak for his recent book, "Slang!"

Millions also know that Patriots are U.S. anti-missile missiles, that Wild Weasels are specially equipped U.S. Phantom jets, that Tomahawks are cruise missiles and that Warthogs are a type of U.S. ground- attack aircraft. These colorfully named weapons of war are trying to fulfill a strategy labeled "assertive disarmament" by some defense experts.

If past wars are an indication, the influence of the gulf conflict on language will grow in proportion to the length of hostilities, Dickson says, noting that wars typically generate their own dialects that work their way into the vernacular.

In subtle and not-so-subtle ways, war terms already have entered into common usage as military acronyms, soldiers' slang, sports analogies and euphemisms shape both descriptions of battle and perceptions of war.

For example, Desert Shield and Desert Storm, the U.S. military's names for its buildup of forces and subsequent attack of Iraq, are "already in the history books," says Dickson.

Because it has been--so far--primarily an air war, the jargon of fliers has become the stuff of dispatches and TV reports. Among the words and phrases that have turned up:

Fur Ball-- Slang for the hectic tangle of air-to-air dogfights.

Golden BB-- Soviet doctrine the Iraquis are said to be emulating in their air defense efforts: If enough bullets and other projectiles fill the sky during an air raid, at least a few are bound to hit the target.

Mort themselves out --Jet fighter pilot slang for planes shooting one another accidentally. The term fratricide is also used.

Sortie --One mission by a single military plane.

BDA --Bomb damage assessment, the military's complicated procedure for determining the effects of bombing.

However, a full-blown dialect won't happen overnight, Dickson notes.

In culling through press reports of early U.S. involvement in Vietnam, Dickson found that soldiers initially relied on World War II slang. For example, veterans of that war used a German word, bierstubes, to describe Vietnamese bars.

Ultimately, the lingo of Vietnam had a profound impact on American language. "The patois of the Vietnam experience infiltrated the American consciousness, slowly for more than a decade, on a Ho Chi Minh trail of the mind," Boston Globe correspondent Martin S. Nolan wrote.

Compiling any war's language may take a while, however. For instance, Gregory Clark, a Vietnam veteran and now a computer technician in Sacramento, has just published "Words of the Vietnam War," a 604-page compendium of 10,000 entries, including 4,000 to 5,000 definitions of words and phrases stemming from that war. As far as Clark knows, his dictionary is one of only two devoted solely to the language of the Vietnam War. However, he notes, many books about that war contain glossaries because of the specialized vocabulary.

While his book is hefty, it contains only 10% to 20% of what he wanted to include, Clark says, adding that he is planning a second volume.

"Words of the Vietnam War" lists such familiar terms as grunt , meaning infantryman, hooch , meaning almost any kind of shelter and lurp , meaning long-range reconnaissance patrol. The book also contains examples of the convoluted euphemisms that have been tagged "Pentagonese." One such term is "incontinent ordnance," meaning the mistaken shelling of your own troops.

Besides "assertive disarmament," the Gulf War has produced at least one other notable example of Pentagonese. "Discriminate deterrence" is the Pentagon term for the pinpoint bombing that has destroyed important Iraqi targets such as Scud warehouses and a building used by Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

The much-used "collateral damage"--an indirect way of saying bombs may have injured or killed civilians and caused damage beyond the target area--predates the current conflict.

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