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April 17, 2003 - War in American English - 2003-04-16

Broadcast on "Coast to Coast": April 17, 2003

HOST: Each Thursday our Wordmasters talk about American English. Filling in for Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble this week is VOA's Adam Phillips. He looks at some of the marks that wars have left on the language we use in the United States. Adam spoke with Geoffrey Nunberg, a linguist at Stanford University in California who focuses on how Americans talk.

NUNBERG: "War has always had a special kind of language, particularly in the West, since the middle of the 19th century. It's a mix of bureaucratic and technical jargon and euphemism. If you just look at the words that begin with B, World War Two gave the American language items like 'beachhead,' 'blitz,' 'blockbuster,' 'battle wagon' for a battleship, 'bloodbath' for a scene of carnage, 'bogie' for an enemy airplane. Go to F and you get 'foxhole' and 'firepower,' 'flak,' which denoted originally anti-aircraft fire but now is used for criticism of any kind, as in 'she caught a lot of flak for that remark she made.'

"Since Vietnam, there have been fewer and fewer permanent contributions to the language coming from warfare, maybe because the wars have been short. And similarly words from earlier wars are often forgotten. My students at Stanford, none of them remember the origin of 'hearts and minds.' That came in in the 1960s during the Vietnam War when Americans were talking about the necessity of 'winning the hearts and minds' of the Vietnamese people, and rapidly became an ironic phrase -- to the point where in 1974 an anti-Vietnam War documentary called "Hearts and Minds" won the Academy Award, the Oscar."

PHILLIPS: "I'd be interested to know about how public relations, as it sort of exists in American culture now, has affected the evolution of language connected with this current Gulf War."

NUNBERG: "Public relations in one form or another has been a part of war language since the middle of the 19th century, when the modern war correspondent and the military press office first appeared. It assumed its present importance really around the time of the First World War, when the word 'propaganda,' which had been around a long time and particularly as a name for the Catholic Church, their efforts to propagate their views, became associated with political language. And 'propaganda' really entered the general American vocabulary around that time.

"The Second World War saw the introduction of a new phrase, 'psychological warfare,' which was sort of like propaganda but directed more specifically at military aims. So this has been going around for a long time and there are similar phrases now. The insistence on the part of the administration that the Iraq war be called a 'liberation' instead of an 'invasion' is one example. Not that it is or isn't a liberation, but that the word 'invasion' -- which was perfectly reasonable as a way of describing the American invasion of Normandy in 1944 -- is now regarded as insufficiently explanatory of American aims."

PHILLIPS: "Any phrases that you think will catch on and stay with us for awhile, or is it just too early to tell?"

NUNBERG: "I think it's too early to tell. I think it's unlikely that this war will leave much of a mark on the language, just because other conflicts of this sort -- the first Gulf War, the Somalia intervention and so forth in recent years -- haven't been around long enough or affected the lives, the everyday lives of enough Americans to really leave a mark on their language in the way the Second World War did -- when millions of Americans were in uniform, everybody had a son or a brother or a cousin overseas and the daily lives of Americans were affected in every regard by the war."

AP: I've been talking to Geoffrey Nunberg, a Stanford University linguist and a frequent commentator on National Public Radio. Professor Nunberg is also the author of a book called "The Way We Talk Now." This is Adam Phillips.