RAF MILDENHALL, England — The English language is forever growing, evolving with the times and the technology.
It appears it’s also growing to keep up with America’s war on terrorism.
In the past several years, two of the language’s foremost dictionaries have added dozens of new words and expressions born on the battlefield but understood by a wider audience, thanks largely to the media and popular culture.
“Because it’s never far from the news, and Iraq is never far from the front page, these words get used more in the press, and then people start dropping them in everyday conversations,” said Cormac McKeown, an editor with Collins English Dictionary.
“And if they are used often enough, they get listed in the dictionary.”
London-based Collins updates its list every two years. It has added several words or idioms used by soldiers and sailors on both sides of the Atlantic, such as Gitmo and narcoterrorism.
McKeown said a combination of highly visible communicators in President Bush’s administration and journalists eager to employ the language of the military has led to the infusion of these new words into the larger language.
“The Bush administration is very good at coming up with these sound bites that stick in the public imagination,” he said. “And the journalists in Iraq, especially the embeds, are trying to show that they are in the know, and that they are down with the people doing the fighting.”
Thomas Pitoniak, an associate editor with Merriam-Webster, said the duration of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan also has played a role.
“These words have had a long time to seep into the public consciousness,” he said. “Sometimes words need to simmer around for a while before they are widely accepted.”
Some of the words will fall out of favor when the military stops using them. Others will remain long after hostilities cease.
Pitoniak said a word that originated during World War II — “snafu” — is still listed in the Merriam-Webster dictionary.
Robert Thompson, a professor at Syracuse University’s S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications and a leading expert on popular culture, said new words and phrases are the inevitable effect of new circumstances.
“Big events typically invent new vernacular to describe new situations, especially war,” he said. “New words also create euphemisms to package things politically.”
He said the media is largely the impetus behind the phenomenon, but that even the most sophisticated linguists and communicators can’t manipulate how language decides which words stick and which flop.
“These words spread through an incredibly efficient international mass media. A word can be coined on Monday, and used universally on Friday,” he said.
“Understanding it is one thing, controlling it is another.”
Words and Definitions
Some notable updates from the Collins English Dictionary:
n beast (v) (slang, chiefly British) — to punish or torture (someone) in a manner that involves excessive physical exercise.
n de-Baathification (n) — the process of removing the members and influence of the Baath Party from public office in Iraq following the U.S.-led invasion of 2003.
n Gitmo (n) — Guantanamo: referring more specifically to the detainment camp run here by the U.S. military, in which suspected terrorists are detained and questioned.
n narcoterrorism(n) — terrorism funded by the sale of illegal drugs.
n thermobaric (adj.) — (of an explosive device or explosion) detonated by means of an explosive substance reacting spontaneously with air.
n exhibition killing (n) — the murder of a hostage by terrorists, filmed for broadcasting on television or the Internet.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary update includes the following:
n burka (n) — a loose enveloping garment that covers the face and body and is worn in public by certain Muslim women.
n hijab (n) — the traditional covering for the hair and neck that is worn by Muslim women.
n IED (abbr) — improvised explosive device.
n RPG (abbr) — rocket-propelled grenade.