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Speaking Terms

Seeking Words to Express the Shock of Mideast Violence

'Homicide bomber' is a new coinage in a period when language has strained to keep up with horror.


"There is a weird power in a spoken word," wrote Joseph Conrad in his turn-of-the-last-century novel "Lord Jim." "... And a word carries far--very far--deals destruction through time as the bullets go flying through space."

When a man kills his wife and children and then himself, it is called a "murder-suicide." Yet when a person walks into a crowded restaurant carrying explosives and kills himself and countless others, it is called a "suicide bombing."

Or at least it was until recently.

Last week, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer began referring to the dozens of Palestinians who have detonated themselves in the midst of hundreds of Israelis as "homicide bombers." National Security Advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin Powell soon followed suit, using the term to describe one of the things that must end before there is any possibility of peace in the Middle East. Since then, Fox News Channel have decided to make the switch as did several senators and media personalities, including Larry King and Gloria Allred.

The reason many gave is simple: "Suicide bomber" emphasizes the wrong thing--these people are not people who simply kill themselves, they're murderers. The fact that they themselves died in the attack is simply not worth mentioning.

"I thought [the switch] was a good idea, a step in the right direction," said Deborah Tannen, professor of linguistics at Georgetown University. "But it's not the perfect word. It's too bad we don't have a word that means both, a suicide killer."

Americans, she said, like the idea of dualities, but sometimes balance is inappropriate. Tannen said she was shocked when some news outlets chose to show a picture of one of the young female bombers juxtaposed with one of her young female victims. "One is a mass murderer, one is an innocent victim; they should not be given the same footing."

Likewise, our word choice often needs adjusting. It's been a tough year for the English language. The destruction of the World Trade Center by terrorist-controlled planes continues to defy adequate naming; what was left has given new meaning to the term "ground zero." Our president declared war on "evil" and "terrorism" without really defining either. The word "security," which once conjured unarmed building attendants or even a child's beloved blanket, now identifies a whole new community encamped at airports, workplaces and government buildings everywhere.

"After the attacks of Sept. 11, a lot of people called them bombings simply because we didn't have a word for attack by airplane," said Tannen. "We still don't. We settled for 'terrorist attack.'"

And many of our strongest words have been made anemic by overuse. "Holocaust," "firestorm," "Nazi," "blood bath" are so much a part of the vernacular now that they have lost most of their original meaning. "It's all part of the universal process of language," Tannen said. "Words get worn out so we get rid of them. Or change them."

Such changes come from a variety of sources. According to H.L. Mencken, the two most prolific word makers of the 20th century were those who invented or marketed new products and the "sub-saline literati, e.g., gossip column journalists, script writers, song writers, comic-strip artists and press agents." But politicians have been known to coin a phrase or two--President Bush's "compassionate conservative," for example--to fit a political agenda.

So far, the switch from "suicide" to "homicide" has, for the most part, remained within the Beltway. Most news outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, continue to use the former because it is accurate and easily understood.

Martin Kaplan, associate dean of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and director of the Norman Lear Center, is not at all surprised that a linguistic controversy has arisen from a much more violent one. "Words do matter," he said, "and the power that controls the terminology can often frame the debate."

The "pro-life movement," he said, is the perfect example--although their opponents have tried to re-dub them anti-choice, and most media dub them "abortion foes," the name they chose for themselves is the one that stuck in the vernacular.

Kaplan said he has no problem with such a change being inaugurated by the White House. "Hey, new vernaculars come from everywhere, from AM disc jockeys to kids on the playground, why shouldn't the White House be a player in this linguistic free market?"

But he's not clear on what problem the new term is meant to solve.

"If you asked the average American what a suicide bomber was, if you asked about culpability and the moral issue," he said, "I don't think there is any real confusion. So I'm not sure this is an important problem."

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