Warspeak: Linguistic Collateral Damage

Warspeak: Linguistic Collateral Damage

Any war is a war on words as well as on people. No one is proud of the effects of war however proud we might be of the intentions of our fighting forces. Whenever war breaks out, we begin to hear the words “newspeak,” “doublespeak,” “doublethink.”

In George Orwell’s 1984, newspeak is a political language designed to narrow the range of thinking among the citizenry to the point that they lack the terms to think for themselves. “Freedom” is defined as slavery and “slavery” as freedom. That should convince everyone to be happy slaves. It is not surprising that those who direct wars would want to narrow the thought of the nation behind them to thoughts of acceptance and support.

We might specify the newspeak of war, in the Orwellian tradition, as “warspeak.” Every war has its own vocabulary and not all of it is nefarious. The extensions of hair on the side of the face were named during the Civil War after General Ambrose Burnside, whose were particularly bushy. Later on, the order of the words was reversed to “sideburns.”

Until the Civil War, a bushwhacker was simply a backwoodsman but after that war, the word referred to ambushers. In a bit of delayed action, the nickname of Confederate General Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson took on ominous implications during the Watergate Scandal, when it became the verb stonewall “to remain absolutely silent to all questions.”

World War II introduced a plethora of new words and phrases to our vocabulary. “Snafu,” “nose dive,” “blitz(krieg),” “storm troopers,” “Nazi,” are all words currently in common usage with meanings moving ever farther from the original (for instance, the “news blitz” or the “Soup Nazi” of TV’s Seinfeld show).

Because we were the “Allied” Powers and the enemy the “Axis” Powers, even today the connotations of the word “axis” are impossible to resist. President Bush’s “Axis of Evil” could never be replaced by “Evil Alliance,” even though it means pretty much the same thing. Of course, the biggest name change came in 1947 when the Department of War changed its name to the Department of Defense.

Perhaps the temperature of the Cold War is responsible for its vocabulary having little impact on contemporary speech. The words “red” and “pink” may never be the same and “pinko” can still raise the occasional eye-brow. But we don’t know what to do with left-overs that have nothing more to refer to, such as “Iron Curtain,” “subversives,” “Checkpoint Charlie,” the “Berlin Wall,” the “Red Menace,” and “commie rat fink.”

The Korean War brought us the ‘Dear John’ letter and the notion of ‘brainwashing.’ Our only explanation for the breakdowns of soldiers in that conflict was that the Koreans had a secret psychological weapon that ‘washed’ our soldiers’ brains of all their training. That allowed us to accept them back into our midst despite behavior that could have cost them dearly in previous wars. That war was also the origin of the MASH unit, the basis of the popular TV show of the same name.

No war has ever torn the US apart like the Vietnam War. This war gave us “grunt,” “body bag,” “friendly fire,” “frag” (killing of an officer by his own men), the “Domino Theory,” “body count,” “carpet bombing” (sounds a bit like something you might do in the living room, doesn’t it), and many others. Most of the Vietnamese era words are euphemisms, more drastically needed because of the unusually personal and vicious nature of that war.

The invasion of Cambodia was referred to as an “incursion” and the war itself was officially a “police action,” not actually a war, even though 2 million people died in it. (The president could declare a police action without congressional approval.) According to William Lutz, author of The New Doublespeak, the first Doublespeak Award went, in 1974, to a US Air Force colonel in Phnom Penh, Cambodia for saying to American reporters, “You always write it’s bombing, bombing, bombing. It’s not bombing, it’s air support.” We never retreated in Vietnam but staged a “phased departure.”

New words for “kill” were especially prolific: “waste, “blow away,” “smoke,” “eliminate assets” were all attempts to think of battlefields as less disturbing than they really are. Here is a brief history of euphemisms for “kill” that have invaded the general language from military jargon and the underground argot.

via Warspeak: Linguistic Collateral Damage.

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