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War lingo puts English in the trenches

The evildoers have issued a fatwa on our language.

It has been ramped up, locked down, weaponized, aerosolized, nasal swabbed, laser-painted and finely milled ever since 9-11.

Has it been anthraxed by sleeper cells in the name of homeland security, or is it suffering only flulike symptoms?

That's the question all Americans must ask themselves before we speak completely asymmetrically.

Granted, the English language is an organic medium, sprouting new usages with each cultural season. Granted, too, wars particularly bombard us with new terms (such as "bombard," which entered general usage, along with other artillery images, during World War I).

But has there ever been such a concentrated injection of war-spawned newspeak as that acquired during the past six weeks?

"It may help to think of language as a great field of word plants," says Allan Metcalf, executive secretary of the American Dialect Society. "Whenever most people focus their attention on one subject, it's like a great dose of fertilizer and rain on that portion of the field. Existing words grow and flower into new meanings. Nouns sprout verbs. In the '90s, it was computers. In the past few weeks, it has been war."

Metcalf says the current run of war words suffers from an unusual problem: "No term has yet been coined to convey even the scope of what happened on Sept. 11, much less the horror. So, in effect, we're all talking about this one subject, but it's a subject for which we have no name."

Although "9-11" is thrown around, the closest thing to a name is "the events of September 11," which Metcalf agrees is "pretty clumsy."

In his 1975 landmark cultural study, The Great War and Modern Memory, Paul Fussell notes that idioms were considerably more peaceful before World War I. It was the immersion of an entire generation of literate civilians in the hell of the western front, he says, that ushered into the civilian vocabulary such images as being "shell-shocked" by a "barrage" of complaints in a political or economic "no man's land."

Military jargon remained largely the province of a professional military class until the mass conscription of the Great War. Then we began speaking of being "torpedoed" by some "crummy" (meaning full of trench lice or "lousy") event, and began referring to the "rank and file" and "platoons" and "sectors" in civilian life.

Among the more intriguing verbal usages Fussell dates from World War I is how the French "souvenir" virtually replaced the traditional "keepsake" in English for an item of remembrance. Was it all that time with the mademoiselles?

And, according to some authorities, being "boozy" from drink dates to American doughboys' experience with red wine from Buzy, a French town near Chateau-Thierry, which also may have spawned the term "booze."

If World War I was the first great militarizer of the English language, it only began a process compounded by each major conflict of the 20th century. The changes have been manifold. For example, World War II gave us the verb "to blitz" from German (for Hitler's "blitzkrieg" or "lightning war"), but it also broadened "Pearl Harbor" from the name of a Hawaiian port to a synonym for a disastrous surprise attack.

It coined words for us from acronyms such as Jeep, Wave, Wac and snafu, and it altered the term "concentration camp" (originated in the Boer War) from a simple prison camp to something else again.

The Korean War gave us terms such as "brainwash" (North Koreans used psycho-torture to obtain turncoat statements from U.S. prisoners of war), "flameout" (from the sudden engine shutdown in a jet fighter) and the prescient "limited war" for a conflict President Truman once termed a "police action."

The Cold War popularized such new terms as "fallout" and appropriated Russian words like "gulag." It also mainstreamed, often ironically, such ideological buzz-terms as "decadent capitalist" and "cultural revolution," as well as politicizing "purge." And although Russian czars may have sent people to "Siberia" for centuries, the term didn't become a synonym for perdition until dictator Joseph Stalin came along.

Vietnam, the nation's longest war, may have enriched (or degraded) our language more than any other conflict. Like World War II, it coined new words from acronyms, as it did the name for the UH-1 "Huey" helicopter, and from abbreviations, as in "fragging" (from fragmentation grenade) for the intentional wounding of an unpopular officer by his own troops. It also expropriated existing words and terms. Will "domino theory" ever again refer to dominoes, or "quagmire" to swampy land, or "light at the end of the tunnel" to an actual tunnel?

But its greatest linguistic contribution was probably in the area of euphemism. Politicians and generals have always sought to whitewash military reverses with such terms as "advance to the rear" and "strategic redeployment," but Vietnam refined that practice to an art. "Plausible deniability," "collateral damage" and "friendly fire" entered civilian discourse half a world away from the war.

The Gulf War gave us "smart bombs," "mother of all battles" and both "air war" and "ground war," which previously had been largely inseparable. It also produced Humvee and MRE (Meals, Ready-to-Eat), both of which had been around for a while intra-Army but vaulted the professional wall into public usage, largely courtesy of a related innovation, the televised military briefing.

Only time certifies the staying power of war words and images. The artillery imagery of World War I is still with us. "Windy," the Great War adjective meaning "frightened," is not. The "doughboys" of 1917 were supplanted by the "GIs" (for "government issue") of 1941, who in turn gave way to the "grunts" of Vietnam.

Will people, in 10 years, consider it disrespectful or irreverent to refer to the horror of the World Trade Center with a shorthand term like "9-11"? Will George W. Bush prove to have coined a generic word for fundamentalist female Muslims by calling them, as he did recently, "women of cover"?

We'll learn only by staying target-focused on weapons-grade war words.

Roger that?