Wednesday, June 6, 2007

"Watch them words, watch them words!"

Tom Ricks, the Washington Post’s Military Correspondent, has a knack for getting my attention with the items he shares from his wide-ranging contacts with members of our armed services. The latest such tidbit was a short note on how American military personnel have picked up Inshallah as part of their everyday vocabulary. Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary ( which includes an audio guide for pronunciation) defines it to mean “God willing,” or “if Allah wills it.” What is not yet clear is the degree to which the appearance of the phrase in regular usage also reflects the adoption of some related degree of fatalistic thinking among the troops about their mission’s chances for success.

Of course, this is not the first time that American troops have taken up foreign words and phrases as a result of their exposure to foreign climes. I was very much reminded of this last Memorial Day as a friend and I drove into Washington DC to participate in the Annual Memorial Day Parade. As he described some office project to me, he made some reference to boo-coo problems – and hearing this legacy of the Vietnam War really caught me off-guard. In part because I hadn’t heard it in so long, was entirely unaware of the nature of his connection to that war, and perhaps because we were both wearing Union Army uniforms (reproductions) for the parade at that particular moment. (By the way, at least one of my sources suggests that the Yanks had previously captured the word in France during the First World War – perhaps it was sent back home during the Depression. One can only wonder at what forgotten lessons the American soldiers of the Revolutionary War learned from their French comrades-in-arms?)

Another piece of linguistic booty that I learned long before I knew its origin is boondocks to refer to remote, rural regions. This is a legacy of the Philippine Insurrection that followed our occupation of the Philippines during the Spanish-American War. Also picked up during that conflict was the word bolo, the Spanish language name for the large machete like knife used by the guerrillas. This reportedly survived in a First World War reference to the men who did not perform well on the rifle range as ‘the bolo squad’ (apparently suggesting they would be better armed with bolos than rifles) and most recently during Desert Storm in the ‘bolo badge’ nickname for a Purple Heart badge awarded for a wound that was received under particularly foolish circumstances. Interestingly, stockade is of Spanish origin but has been in English usage for so long that it appears to date from pre-American Revolutionary contacts between American or British and Spanish forces in Europe or North America.

However, in spite of all of this entertaining trivia, the reported usage of Inshallah does warrant reflection on what this conflict is doing to the military now and in for the future. For most of the 19th Century, French offered the strongest impact on the speech of American soldiers since we and everybody else took Napoleon and his Grande Armée as our model for military perfection. French was the first foreign language taught at West Point. With the rise of Prussia in Europe, after our American Civil War, German words entered the military vocabulary as our officers sought to master a more theoretical approach to war based upon the study of Clausewitz and the application of his ideas by German generals. This influence survived right up to the verge of the Cold War when Russian began to exert a greater influence. As the post-Vietnam War army refocused on a possible conflict with the Soviet Union and Warsaw Pact, German re-emerged in words like schwerpunkt to mean strongpoint or center of gravity, for example, as American forces studied how to fight a war in Europe against a modern technologically advanced and larger opponent. Words do have meaning and attention to the evolution of military vocabulary offers insight into what is happening on the battlefield as well as what is happening in the higher headquarters both in the field and in Washington, DC.

“Politics is the art of looking for trouble, finding it, misdiagnosing it, and misapplying the wrong remedies.”
Groucho Marx

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