Words for War: Common Mistakes in Writing About Human Conflict

Image courtesy of Vanity Fair; photo illustration by Stephen Doyle. Image courtesy of Vanity Fair; photo illustration by Stephen Doyle.

Words and war are connected deeply and in ways that have shaped human history.  Land armies secured the Rosetta Stone, which enabled linguistic understanding of far off ancient civilizations.  Paper-making technology came to the Middle East and Europe from a Chinese prisoner of war taken at the Battle of Talas in 751A.D. And, as descriptions go, few approach the significance of when Raphael Lemkin coined the term genocide in the fall of 1944. As the Wall Street Journal remarks, this word was an “ungainly hybrid, etymologically speaking, combinging Greek “genos” meaning “people” or “nation” with the Latin-derived suffix “-cide” for “killing.”  Lemkin “hit upon the word after rejecting various other possibilities, including established terms like “barbarity” and “vandalism,” as well as a similar coinage, “ethnocide.” So, these two – words and war – are linked in historically important ways.

But what about words for war?  Words that describe war.  Or, if we’re using politically correct terminology, words that describe the use of force?  Either way, war or the use of force – this is a complex social phenomenon which is not always that easy to describe. There are mistakes, misrepresentations, and fundamental inaccuracies in writing about war, and what follows are three attempts to highlight common errors: the use of the word decimate, the American War on Terror, and the military predilection for unnaturally connecting words like landpower.

Steven Pinker on decimate

Steven Pinker – Harvard Professor, public intellectual, and consultant to the Heritage Dictionary – recently spoke on the subject of good writing at an Intelligence Squared event in London.  In it, he addressed the common misuse of the word decimate; his comments are worth quoting at length:

“There’s a rule that says that decimate may only mean ‘to destroy a tenth of,’ despite the fact that virtually every actual usage means ‘devastate’ or ‘destroy at least nine-tenths of.’ The idea is that since it came from a Roman practice of punishing a mutinous legion by executing every tenth soldier. [There is a] New Yorker cartoon [that] shows a bunch of Roman soldiers and there’s one of them lying on the ground with a sword in his chest, and another one says to his neighbor, ‘Gee, that wasn’t as a bad as I thought.’

The rationale behind the rule is that since, technically, ‘decimate,’ you can hear the ‘d-e-c’ in decimate, it means a tenth, therefore it must mean – ‘destory a tenth of.’ Dictionary editors refer to this as the etymological fallacy, because it is simply not true that the original sense of a word is its only correct sense. In fact that’s false for probably the majority of English words, and as the editor of the Merriam Webster [puts it], ‘if you insist that decimate means destroy a tenth of, shouldn’t you also insist that December refer to the tenth month?’…Usage changes and we’ve just got to get used to that.”

Steven Pinker on War on Terror

Moreover, Pinker addresses the term “War on Terror” in his new book, The Sense of Style (page 87):

“I was also taught that a ‘noun’ is a word for a person, place, or thing, which confuses a grammatical category with a semantic category. The comedian Jon Stewart was confused, too, because on his show he criticized George W. Bush’s ‘War on Terror’ by protesting, ‘Terror isn’t even a noun!’ What he meant was that terror is not a concrete entity, in particular a group of people organized into an enemy force. Terror, of course, is a noun, together with thousands of words that don’t refer to people, places, or things, including the nouns word, category, show, war, and noun, to take just some examples from the past few sentences. Though nouns are often the names for people, places, and things, the noun category can only be defined by the role it plays in a family of rules. Just as a ‘rook’ in chess is defined not as the piece that looks like a little tower but as the piece that is allowed to move in certain ways in the game of chess, a grammatical category such as ‘noun’ is defined by the moves it is allowed to make in the game of grammar. These moves include the ability to appear after a determiner (the king), the requirement to have an oblique rather than a direct object (the king of Thebes, not the king Thebes), and the ability to be marked for plural number (kings) and genitive case (king’s). By these tests, terror is certainly a noun: the terror, terror of being trapped, the terror’s lasting impact.”

Eliot Cohen on landpower, seapower, and airpower

Professor Eliot Cohen of the Johns Hopkins School for Advanced International Studies gave a lecture at the Lowy Institute in Australia this past August. At approximately 32 minutes in, he describes his dislike for what has come to be the common way to refer to armies, navies, and air forces:

“The use of force is always related to concrete problems and political contexts. It is never an abstraction…

Strategic thinkers too often discuss the forms of military power as a kind of abstraction. The dead giveaway is when they begin to take the adjective land, air, or sea, and power, and jam it together into one word. Sea power became seapower. Or air power became airpower. And I sincerely hope that you never begin writing land power as one word.

…No sensible discussion of land power, or any other form of power, can be held if you keep it at that high a level of abstraction.”

Author: ML Cavanaugh

Unequal parts strategist, assistant professor, wordsmith, runner, wine-o, reader, philosopher of firepower, and hopeless lover of three ladies named Rachel, Grace, and Georgie.

One thought on “Words for War: Common Mistakes in Writing About Human Conflict”

  1. As a Latinist, I loved this. I find myself torn between linguistic purity i.e. ‘literally’ isn’t an intensifying adverb and effective communication i.e. ‘literally’ is now an intensifying verb, and my students have literally communicated with me even if they utilized ‘literally’ improperly vis-a-vis its grammatical function. If language is used to communicate, then I find myself in agreement with Pinker. Languages are dynamic. They evolve. Men like Petrarch and Erasmus who claimed to know Latin and love it more than Cicero, ironically and quite accidentally began to Latin’s eventual downfall as a European lingua franca. When they codified it, when they created and enforced static rules that defined what they thought was a more pure language, the dynamic and evolving Latin of the Middle Ages ceded to the static and artificial language of Ciceronian polemic. The philologists and 19th century academics didn’t help either.

    Having said that, words have meaning. We cannot just utilize them willy-nilly. Especially, as Cohen points out, when words can have effect on shaping world events. Precision and accessibility are key. I would rather say something in 100 words precisely what I could have said concisely in 20 but with ambiguity.

    Like

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