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Impending conflict has own lexicon

March 18, 2003|Mary McNamara | Times Staff Writer

We've got "Winnebagos of Death," HooAH! bars, "shock and awe," freedom fries and cheese-eating surrender monkeys. The "coalition of the willing" (often pronounced as one word) will be taking on the "axis of evil" and all its WMD (that would be weapons of mass destruction) and if it is not the "mother of all wars" as it was in 1991, well, the "mother of all bombs" may well make an appearance.

All of which sounds much more lighthearted and fun than a war against Iraq will be, and that may well be the point.

Every military conflict comes equipped with its own lexicon, if only to explain the food -- from hardtack to K-rations to MREs (meals ready to eat). And already, the impending war with Iraq has spawned its own shorthand, which differs slightly from war jargon of the past in that it's preemptive and seemingly instantaneous.

The proliferation of media all looking for the next hot headline phrase, has created a linguistic mint set on overdrive. Even front-line journalists have a new verb to contend with -- the Pentagon announced that reporters would not just be joining or covering the movements of troops, they would be "embedded" within them.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Friday March 21, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 0 inches; 22 words Type of Material: Correction
Cyprus -- In an article about the evolving language of war in Tuesday's Calendar, the country of Cyprus was misspelled as Cypress.

Like the literal and figurative flag-waving that swept the nation post-Sept. 11, a new vernacular, which often borders on whimsical, has a soothing effect on those fearful and feeling powerless. "When you're afraid, you like to be part of a group," says Deborah Tannen, a linguistics professor at Georgetown University. "And the proliferation of the media allows the public to function more in the way private groups used to. People under stress -- doctors and nurses, for example -- often have a joking way of talking, a joking way of referring to things. It's something that gives you a sense of security when you're feeling insecure."

Some of the new terminology, like "coalition of the willing," is government spin of the "homeland security" variety -- the linguistic equivalent of airbrushing complicated and messy situations for public consumption. Some is simply social irreverence -- the first reference to the French as "surrender monkeys" came on TV's "The Simpsons," but it was Internet bloggers who helped it, and its fraternal twin "axis of weasels," make the nightly news. But war lingo, like any other "speak" is usually about feeling in control, safe and, if possible, hip.

"Everyone's fighting for ink," says Geoffrey Nunberg, a senior researcher at Stanford University's Center for the Study of Language and Information and the author of "The Way We Talk Now." "So everyone's looking for that memorable turn of phrase that will get them the Internet link or a mention on TV."

"The administration," he adds, "is trying to package this war, and if the president coins a term, then obviously it's going to get more attention."

According to Tannen, whose most recent book is "I Only Say This Because I Love You," the Bush administration has tinkered with the word "war" in its references to fighting terrorism since Sept. 11. "The administration started using the word 'war' even though it was clearly a metaphor, because we were not truly at war."

Many people use the word "war" very freely, she said, meaning "a concerted effort" rather than invasion and death. It is also possible, she added, "that Bush began using it so early because you can't really oppose a government when you're at war."

As with any market, supply diminishes value. According to Nunberg, the proliferation of the bon mot du jour means that fewer are going to stand the test of time -- HooAH!, an energy bar named for the old military exhortation that may accompany MREs, will probably not be another "victory garden," and "axis of evil" will, in all likelihood, not bump "England's finest hour" from Bartlett's.

"The media coins more and more of these words and they have a shorter half-life" with each coinage, Nunberg says. "If you look at lists kept of new words, many of those created in the '40s and '50s are still around, the '70s and '80s not so much."

Historically, the phrases that stick are those traded on the street rather than plastered into a logo behind Tom Brokaw's head. Although "Mission: Impossible" has a lot to answer for when it comes to those newscast headlines -- "Countdown: Iraq" and their ilk are the most visible attempts to package the news as blockbuster hit. And, as it happens, says Nunberg with a laugh, "it's all very French. At least linguistically." (In French, adjectives usually follow the noun.)

The military has become increasingly aware of the power of the pen. The literary success of Desert Shield and Desert Storm made it clear that naming things properly is half the battle. President Bush went off the radar when he originally dubbed the war on terrorism "Operation Infinite Justice." Many found this a bit heady for mere mortals, even scions of a political dynasty, so it was changed to Operation Enduring Justice abroad and Operation Noble Freedom at home.

Likewise, weaponry is almost always domesticated if not anthropomorphized. "Winnebagos of Death" refer to the trucks that, according to U.S. intelligence agencies, the Iraqi military uses to disguise mobile biological weapons labs. The "mother of all bombs" seemed the perfect nickname for the new massive ordnance air burst, or MOAB, and a pointed reference to Saddam Hussein's claim that the 1991 Persian Gulf conflict would be "the mother of all battles." And "shock and awe," for all its echoing of Valley speak, is a legitimate battle technique of massive bombings, a necessary step in achieving Rapid Dominance.

Like Nunberg, Tannen thinks that most of the future terminology will probably go the way of "Scud stud" but, she adds, after the Turkish-Greek conflict over Cypress, Greeks began referring to Turkish coffee as Greek coffee and thus it has remained.

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