Words of war: Terms carefully chosen


Published: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 9:17 a.m.
Last Modified: Tuesday, January 2, 2007 at 9:17 a.m.

What's in a name? When it comes to the language of war, quite a bit.

As President Bush mulls sending a “surge” of U.S. troops in Iraq, some scholars suggest the term is one of many carefully chosen words Washington officials have used in connection with the war since it started nearly four years ago.

George Lakoff, a professor of linguistics at the University of California, Berkeley, says it's no coincidence supporters of sending additional troops to Iraq advocate a "surge" rather than an “increase.”

“Surge says it goes up and goes down — and not only that, it goes up and goes down quickly,” said Lakoff, who has written extensively about the way language frames political discourse.

Pointing to a recent column published in "The Weekly Standard," Lakoff says there's evidence that supporters of a "surge" are in fact discussing a more long-term and extensive troop commitment than the chosen language implies. A column titled “The Right Type of ‘Surge,’ ” authored by retired Army Gen. Jack Keane and “The Weekly Standard” contributing editor Frederick W. Kagan, suggests an increased troop presence of at least 30,000 for 18 months.

With the additional nonmilitary support required to accommodate 30,000 more troops, Lakoff says the proposal advocated by Kean and Kagan would ultimately mean an influx of some 50,000 more people into Iraq. The current troop level in Iraq is 130,000.

"If those numbers are an indication of what's really being proposed (by Washington policymakers), that's very substantial and it's a substantial escalation of violence," said Lakoff, who's most recent book is titled “Thinking Points: Communicating Our American Values and Vision.”

Ido Oren, an associate professor of political science at the University of Florida, says the word “surge” may have become a common descriptor because it's more likely to garner public support.

“They do what they can to select words that in their minds would be more palatable to the public," Oren said of officials within the Bush administration. “Does ‘surge’ sound less severe or more acceptable than ‘increase’? I suppose it is.”

Carefully choosing language is nothing new for politicians. Geoff Nunberg, author of “Talking Right,” points out that it wasn't so long ago when Democratic President Franklin Delano Roosevelt introduced the term "social security" in lieu of more politically loaded language.

“The phrase ‘social security,’ now we don't think about it," said Nunberg, a linguist at the Berkeley School of Information. “But it wasn't welfare. It wasn't ‘the dole’.”

The Roosevelt administration even introduced a well-known political prop to market the plan, amplifying the political theater, Nunberg said.

“Giving everybody a card with a number on it was all a piece of political genius,” he said.

“Social security” may be "genius" in the game of political language, but there are plenty of recent examples of Washington rhetoric that doesn't take hold in the press or the public. While still used by some conservative columnists and bloggers, “Islamo-Fascist” was a relatively short-lived label for al-Qaeda and other groups.

Nunberg notes that other phrases have similarly fallen by the wayside, including the now infamous “mission accomplished” proclamation after Saddam Hussein's regime was overthrown. Similarly, Bush's cowboy-infused suggestion that Osama bin Laden was “wanted dead or alive” was the “kind of talk” the president later said he regretted.

“Every one of those (phrases) is saturated with irony the same way all of the Vietnam stuff like ‘(winning) hearts and minds’ was,” Nunberg said.

In the battle over how best to describe the war in Iraq, disagreement remains about whether the conflict there is indeed a “civil war.” It's likely similar disagreements over language will continue, and it's incumbent upon the the public and the media to think critically about all of the words being used to describe the conflict and U.S. foreign policy in general, Lakoff said.

“Words are not mere words,” he said. “Words mean something, and the question is: What words reflect the reality on the ground?”

Jack Stripling can be reached at 374-5064 or Jack.Stripling@ gvillesun.com.

Reader comments posted to this article may be published in our print edition. All rights reserved. This copyrighted material may not be re-published without permission. Links are encouraged.

Comments are currently unavailable on this article

▲ Return to Top