May 9, 1999 - Language of War

INTRO: The "language of war" is the subject this time for our Wordmasters, Avi Arditti and Rosanne Skirble.

AA: NATO officials hold daily news briefings on the air campaign in Yugoslavia. Here NATO spokesman Jamie Shea answers a question about what seemed to be some conflicting information.


SHEA: "There's no contradiction here. The meeting did not discuss the idea which has been a familiar one of sending in ground troops in a non-permissive environment. . . "

SOUKHANOV: "Permissive, semi-permissive and non-permissive environment -- friendly, iffy or hostile environments is what is meant."

RA: Anne Soukhanov (soo-'ha-nof) keeps a close eye on those daily reports from brussels. She is the "Word Watch" columnist for the Atlantic monthly magazine and author of the book "Word Watch: The Stories Behind the Words of Our Lives." And, she is the U-S editor of the Encarta World English Dictionary, to be published in August.

AA: In other words, Anne Soukhanov makes her living listening not just to what people say but also how they say it.


"Other examples of euphemistic vocabulary that I hear in the briefings are things like 'degrade the command and control infrastructure of Yugoslavia.' Degrade means either to damage or destroy by way of bombardment.

'Command and control infrastructure' is sort of an engineering term that involves such things as roads, rail lines, bridges, headquarters, barracks and so on. "

RS: Anne Soukhanov says "assets" is another popular word with the NATO briefers.


"Air assets, naval assets, strike assets, rescue assets -- (assets) means personnel. It also can mean the equipment used to transport personnel. A force package is a bomb or a warhead, a strike package is a group of platforms -- another word they love to use -- either airborne or naval or ground, used to deliver force packages. "

AA: "Why don't they just call it a bomb. "

SOUKHANOV: "This I don't know, but I do feel that 'packaging' everything, in the recent past, has become a buzz word. You package a product, you package a personality if you're working in public relations, trying to represent a famous person. "

RS: To Anne Soukhanov, such terms represent what she calls anti-emotional "program management jargon." And she says it's being used more and more in society these days, not just in the military. She says military language didn't used to be so "antiseptic. "


"Oh, as far back as Teddy Roosevelt and the roughriders, that's a pretty rough and ready term. In the first world war, we had things called 'duds' and 'flamethrowers' and 'shell shock' and 'trench warfare. ' They rather called it what it was. "

AA: Anne Soukhanov says more recent wars have produced euphemisms like "collateral damage" to describe "civilian casualties. "


"But what we're been seeing in Brussels has taken it to a new dimension. I've seen a lot of political cartoonists recently address this issue of how it used to be 'charge!' and 'hit the beach' and now it's 'degrade the infrastructure.' And it's become an interesting issue because lots of times people don't understand what some of these terms really mean."

RS: Anne Soukhanov says she was surprised to hear one NATO briefer, a German general, use some terms anyone could understand.


"He kept talking about air strikes. In fact, I have notes here: 'attack used a lot, six or seven times in three or four minutes. '"

AA: "Whereas another spokesman might use what terms?"

SOUKHANOV: "Might use 'incursion' or 'event' or might use 'strike package.'"

AA: Veteran word-watcher Anne Soukhanov, speaking to us from her home in Virginia.

RS: And if you'd like to speak to us, our e-mail address is word@VOA. Gov, or write us at VOA Wordmaster, Washington dc 20547 USA.

AA: With Rosanne Skirble, I'm Avi Arditti.