language and words in the news

English suffers collateral damage

Kerry Maxwell’s next BuzzWord article will be discussing the term 9/11 and related words, but in this post we’ll look more broadly at the linguistic fallout of the tragic events of 10 years ago.  Wars always leave their mark on a language. They give rise to new words and expressions, and often give fresh life to older words or invest them with new meanings. So what impact have the events of 9/11 had on English?

9/11 sparked off two ‘conventional’ wars (the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan) and to the so-called war on terror – sometimes known as the ‘global war on terror’, or GWOT. Some people wondered ‘how do you wage war on an abstract noun?’, and the absence of a clearly definable enemy led to other linguistic acrobatics. People in Iraq who took up arms to oppose uninvited invaders were described as insurgents. Some would argue this is a misuse of the term, but it has a long history of being used in exactly this way – notably during the British Empire to brand armed opponents of colonial rule. More sinister was the use of unlawful combatant – the label given to anyone incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay (or Gitmo, as it became known). The detainees weren’t called prisoners of war (that would have given them rights under the Geneva Convention), presumably because the ‘war on terror’ wasn’t a ‘real’ war. Or was it?

In an ill-advised move, President Bush revived the word crusade to describe US actions. To be fair to Bush, he was probably invoking the ‘generic’ and often positive use of the term (found in expressions like ‘a crusade against corruption/poverty/people-trafficking’). But he failed to consider the negative connotations of crusade for people in the Middle East: the original Crusades of the 11th to 13th centuries were holy wars waged by Christians against Muslims, and often involved appalling massacres. The word was quickly dropped. The invasion of Iraq itself was codenamed Operation Iraqi Freedom (there’s a rumour it was going to be called ‘Operation Iraq Liberation’ – but the resulting acronym didn’t give quite the right message), and it applied the military doctine of shock and awe. This had been devised in the 1990s to characterise the use of sudden and overwhelming force. But the term gained widespead currency during the Iraq war, and seeped into popular culture, being used to describe anything from advertising campaigns or management styles to the tactics of a football team:

The gentle nature of the songs and the lack of  shock and awe in the band’s performance would be better suited to a more intimate venue.
Members of the public were treated to the school’s “Shock and Awe” Christmas chemistry magic show.

Shock and awe was a feature of what was now being described as asymmetric warfare: on one side, massively superior resources and military technology; on the other, people who were ill-equipped but still able to inflict significant damage – not least by their willingness to become suicide bombers (and hence martyrs).

The military’s fondness for Orwellian euphemism (seen for example in terms like friendly fire or collateral damage, which originated during the Vietnam war) is well represented in post-9/11 usage. What most people would call torture acquired a new name: enhanced interrogation techniques. The clearly unpleasant process of kidnapping suspected terrorists and flying them to ‘sympathetic’ regimes (who would apply enhanced interrogation techniques) was described using the harmless-sounding word rendition. Until this point, rendition usually meant the way someone performed a poem, a song, or something similar, and our corpus shows it is an overwhelmingly positive word: there are numerous examples of  ‘superb’, ‘beautiful’, ‘moving’ and ‘stunning’ renditions, and hardly any with more negative adjectives. As Michael Hoey would probably argue, this familiar use could ‘prime‘ us to think of rendition in a positive light.

It would be a pity to end without mentioning Donald Rumsfeld’s famous contribution to the philosophy of conflict – the notion that there are known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns. Though this was widely ridiculed it makes more sense than you may think. Interestingly, the one Rumsfeld missed (unknown knowns – things you know, but which you don’t realise you know) is a good way of describing the experience of analysing language in a corpus: you keep coming across facts which bring a spark of recognition, so at some level you already knew them, but without the corpus data you would probably never have thought of them.

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Michael Rundell

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