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Them’s Fighting Words

We have to thank wars and conflict for many of the popular words in our language today. During occupations our soldiers pick up slang; while fighting with another culture, we learn more about it and assimilate its words (quite the opposite of politicians’ intentions, I think).

World War II boosted the English vocabulary. The thing about world wars is that the participants are forced to be in contact with civilizations around the globe, whether they agree with those people and their ideologies or not. WWII first brought us blitz (1940, from German Blitzkriegsnafu (1941, military abbreviation, ‘situation normal, all f*cked up’), honcho (1947, from Japanese Hancho), and pin-up (1941, first was Dorothy Lamour). The atomic bombs created some menacing vocab: countdown, fallout, fission, fusion, mushroom cloud, and test site.

Next came the Korean War. Also known as The Forgotten War or the Unknown War, this war had an ambiguous ending and it’s culturally disremembered in the US. Brainwashing is a term from this war. It’s a direct translation of the Chinese term xi nao (1950). Chopper, slang for helicopter, is military slang from the same period (1951). I’m guessing the term comes from the chopping action of the helicopter blades.

The Vietnam war created and introduced even more words: defoliate, domino theory, napalm. Some words took on new meanings: a situation escalates, pacification meant to wipe out resisters, and hawks and doves were pro- or anti-war. Nixon’s use of the phrase the silent majority caused a wide spread of the phrase after a presidential address.

I got the idea for this post from a book I’m reading: The Story Of English by Robert McCrum, Robert MacNeil, and William Cran.


2 Comments Add Yours ↓

  1. 1

    this is really interesting maggie. my dad was an airman, and i grew up with SNAFU in the vocab. cool to know where it comes from!

  2. 2

    my dad says “fubar” = f*d up beyond all recognition. what say you word guru? is FUBAR in your books?


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