Words and the War in Iraq

by Dennis Baron

Like all wars, the war in Iraq affects not just the lives of individuals and the course of history, it also changes the landscape of the American language. Wars have embedded terms like “Kilroy,” and “radar” into the vocabulary of English, not to mention catch phrases like “making the world safe for democracy,” which Woodrow Wilson used to kick off American entry into World War I, and “peace in our time,” Neville Chamberlain’s disastrously optimistic assessment of the Munich agreement he signed with Hitler in 1938.

The first Gulf War contributed Saddam Hussein’s warning that American invaders would face “the mother of all battles,” which Dick Cheney later reworked into “the mother of all retreats” to describe Hussein’s response to the American invasion of Kuwait, and which even today is generating new of “mother of all . . .” phrases, everything from “the mother of all conspiracies” and “the mother of all vote frauds” to “the mother of all search engines.” There’s even a “Mother of All Baby Books” (sales rank 6,256 on Amazon.com).

The present war also started with a slogan, “shock and awe,” a phrase that lost its punch when the peace in Iraq proved deadlier than the war it followed. The second Gulf conflict brought “regime change” and the Americanized pronunciation of Iraq as “eye-rack” (the rest of the world calls the country “ee-rock”). “Spider hole,” a vintage term from World War II, popped into sight briefly when Saddam Hussein was found hiding in one, but “weapons of mass destruction” is a phrase that has proved more visible than the weapons it refers to, and seems to be a keeper.

Although polls show that most Americans still think there are weapons of mass destruction to be found in Iraq, it’s the pervasive “roadside bombs,” “car bombs,” and “suicide bombers,” not WMD’s, that are actually killing people. The American military, which brought us “snafu” (‘situation normal, all f***ed up’) and “fubar” (‘f***ed up beyond all recognition’), lumps these weapons of limited destruction under the umbrella acronym “IED,” or “improvised explosive device.” Another term made prominent by the war is “hillbilly armor,” scrap metal and ballistic glass used by soldiers to “uparmor” their trucks. Although he clearly wants an army that doesn’t complain about snafus and unprotected humvees, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld recently reassured the army that he has that even real armor can’t stand up to roadside bombs.

Although it’s not in any dictionary, “roadside bomb” is not a new phrase. The Associated Press used it in a 1979 story about Basque terrorists, and roadside bombs were popular with insurgents in Lebanon and Bosnia. The expression may not be as old as the related “car bomb,” used in Northern Ireland in 1972, or “suicide bomber,” with a destructive history going back at least to 1941. Nor does it top the Google on-line popularity poll: there are only 279,000 hits for “roadside bomb,” compared to 710,000 for “suicide bomber” and well over 1.2 million for “car bomb.”

Unlike suicide or car bombs, unlike IED’s and WMD’s, the phrase “roadside bomb” has a ring to it that is both catchy and paradoxical. It combines the peaceful image of the roadside cafe, the roadside fruit stand, and the roadside rest (remember when motels had names like that?), with the element of surprise provided by the explosion that follows.

It would be wonderful if “roadside bombs” proved as evanescent as the weapons of mass destruction they replaced. But with American troops embedded in Iraq for a good long time, the war in Iraq will assure “roadside bomb” not just a continuing place in the headlines, but also a more permanent place in the dictionary.

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Dennis Baron is professor of English and linguistics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.