Roadside Bomb: The Word of the Year for 2005

by Dennis Baron

The word of the year for 2005 – actually a phrase –  is roadside bomb. It was my choice for word of the year for 2004, and in the absence of an exit strategy for the war in Iraq, it looks to be the word of the year for 2006 as well.

Although it’s not in any dictionary, roadside bomb is not a new phrase. It appears in a 1979 AP story about Basque terrorists, and roadside bombs were popular with insurgents in Lebanon and Bosnia. “Roadside bomb” 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 is it as popular on the Internet. Googling “roadside bomb” nets 1,010,000 hits, a three-fold jump since last year. But car bombs are stronger, at over 3 million, and suicide bombers lead the hit parade, with more than 3.74 million served.

But unlike car bomb and suicide bomber, roadside bomb has a ring to it that is both catchy and paradoxical. It combines the peaceful image of the roadside café, the roadside stand, and the roadside rest with the element of surprise provided by the explosion that typically follows. And the explosion does follow: roadside bombs have become the weapon of choice for Iraqi insurgents.

Like other wars, the war in Iraq affects not just the lives of individuals and the course of history, it also changes the language landscape. The two World Wars embedded terms like “Kilroy,” and “radar” into English, not to mention catch phrases like “making the world safe for democracy” and “peace in our time.” The first Gulf War brought Saddam Hussein’s warning that American invaders would face “the mother of all battles,” which proved a dud. But the phrase lived on.

The second Gulf War also started with a slogan, “shock and awe,” which backfired when the peace in Iraq proved deadlier than the war it followed. GW II did bring “regime change” to Iraq – though we’re still waiting to see what the regime will change into. “Spider hole,” a vintage term from WW II, popped up briefly when Saddam Hussein was found hiding in one, then faded away. But “weapons of mass destruction,” a phrase that has proved more visible than the weapons it refers to, is a keeper.

Roadside bombs deserve special recognition this year because in a relatively short time they have carved out a deep niche – actually a scar – in our lexicon.  Roadside bombs explode regularly in the news as well as by the roadside.  According to Lexis/Nexis, roadside bombs made the papers on twenty-six of the past thirty days, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a roadside bomb on today’s front page.

It’s the pervasive roadside bombs, car bombs, and suicide bombers, not WMD’s, that are actually killing people.  According to the Washington Post, they’re now causing half the American deaths in Iraq.  The American military, which brought us “snafu” – situation normal, all f***ed up – lumps these weapons of limited destruction under the umbrella acronym IED, for “improvised explosive device.”  IED’s in turn lead to “hillbilly armor,” an improvised defensive device – bits of scrap metal and ballistic glass – used by soldiers to “uparmor” their trucks. Although Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld clearly wants an army that doesn’t complain about snafus and unprotected humvees, he admitted to the army that he has that even real armor can’t stand up to roadside bombs.

It would be wonderful if roadside bombs proved as evanescent as the weapons of mass destruction they replaced.  But with our troops embedded in Iraq for the foreseeable future, “roadside bomb” is assured not just a continuing place in the headlines, but also a permanent place in the dictionary.

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Dennis Baron has been picking his “word of the year” since 1989.