Taking Aim at Commo
a scholium on style and usage
Proper words in proper places, make the true definition of a
Jonathan Swift ["A Letter to a Young Gentleman, lately
entered into Holy Orders" (1721)]
A Verbal Contraption
Beyond bringing about geographic and cultural changes that are
literally earth-shaking, war has also generated advances in
technology such as radar and jet travel, and prompted scientific
discoveries, such as penicillin and new treatments for malaria.
On a societal level, it has had a profound effect on language and
vocabulary as warriors move from place to place according to
their country's demands, interacting with other cultures.
Vocabulary and usage are borrowed or altered as each group learns
new and distinctive expressions from another. In explaining,
describing, or lauding events, colorful jargon emanating from the
barracks is on the front line of such change, for it tends to be
concise and especially apt. In addition to soldiers, politician
or statesmen have had a hand in producing a spin as far back as
antiquity, adding richness to our language.
Of course, the extremity of war always has justification. It can
range from family to country and honor. Liberty is often
a factor, the word relating to the German liebe, or
love, derived from the Latin Libido. The love for
liberty can also be quite genuine, a word that means
placing on the knees, a way the ancient Romans
acknowledged a new offspring in front of the family. Eventually
that practice was taken over in Old English with the word
stol, meaning throne, a worthy validation for
going to war.
Once established, it would behoove the leaders to motivate the
warriors to prepare for battle. The Anglo-Saxon scream or
hcream was a tribal outcry at a perceived wrongdoing. In
the process, Celtics might further seek a slogan, a word
combining slaugh and gheun meaning battle cry.
Ancient Romans would seek out a victima or animal that
would be sacrificed. In France, the training would encompass
being a marcher that could traple or even hammer his
opponent. Wherever the encampment, such bold words served to
fortify resolve among the untrained conscripts.
If it didn't, there were other means, such as providing marijuana
for the warriors to smoke before going into battle. The word
assassin comes from the Arabic word hashshshin
meaning someone addicted to marijuana. There were even secret
societies in which assassination enabled those in the Middle East
to assert power. Infiltration into the enemie's ranks was one of
the practices. In more modern times, British sailors would be
fortified with grog, a mixture of rum and water, a word
that was a corruption of Old Grog, a reference to the
British Admiral Vernon who wore a coat made of grogram,
meaning coarsely textured. All this to preclude a man from being
called a coward, from the old French coe
meaning tail, in reference to an animal turning tail and running
Military dress in ancient times had its own linguistic impact.
The word escape is Latin for out of cape, a
practice whereby the soldiers would avoid capture by discarding
their identifying garments and running away. In a different
climate, Scandinavian warriors would ceremonially wear bear
shirts called berserkr which they hoped would make them
invincible. It also caused them to run berserk as they
fought with the enemy. In the 1700s, when French troops were
entering Croatia during the Napoleonic wars, they found the
citizenry to be so welcoming after being under the control of the
German Hapsburgs that they were showered with flowers and bright
squares of red cloth placed in the collars of their uniforms.
This variation of Croat can be found in French, German
and Spanish in the words cravat, krawatte, and
corbata, each meaning a man's necktie.
But ultimately an army travels on its stomach, and if the leaders
want to succeed, they will make sure its soldiers are well fed.
Chocolate was introduced to the Spaniards who invaded
South America, a word which comes from the Nahuatl language of
the Aztecs tchocoatl. A chocolate based drink started
with cacahuaquchtl powder that was mixed with chili,
musk, and honey. When soldiers prepared for battle, ground corn
was added to its nourishment. In other American expeditions,
soldiers confused some newly discovered food with their more
familiar sweet potato, bappa, which changed to
bappata and evolved into the English word
potato. A continent away, coffee beans were
discovered in the town of Kaffa, Ethiopia, by advancing Arabs who
had cut off the access to the then Abyssinia in the
8th Century. The kaffa beans were later
introduced to Europe by 17th Century Ottoman Turks
who, when fighting the Austrians, faced reversals and retreated,
leaving sacks of coffee beans. These were quickly brewed in
public houses, called a café, and later, this
drink was combined with a pastry shaped as a crescent, as
represented in the Turkish flag, and dubbed the
croissant by the French.
Food was not the only reward of warfare. Ancient Rome realized
its soldiers had to be paid for their service and did so with a
handful of salt, a rare and much desired commodity. This was
eventually replaced with salt money or salary
that would enable the soldiers to buy their own. The medieval
French term soldat is related to that practice. If a
Roman soldier was of higher rank, he might demand more and be
rewarded with some slaves known as addicts. Today,
anyone who is enslaved, as with drugs, is known as an addict.
But wars didn't last forever. When finally won, there was much to
do in restoring the peace. First came the soldiers, who had to be
literally appeased or paid off, a term derived from the
Latin pax, which refers to a peace imposed by
predominance. The German word freiheit for
freedom is closely derived from friede
(originally Frisian frith), meaning peace or
well-being. When sued for such a peace, the wronged would be
given a peace offering, such as a quantity of meat or
hides called bot or botshaft, a current German
word for message, and later boot or
boat, which could refer to the deliverer. Another
Germanic word, riht refers to the justice or balance
that tribal leaders determined when sizing the bot.
Riht was the perfect amount of bot that would
once more establish order and a long-lasting peace, and might
refer to our own use of right, as in the Bill of Rights.
Ancient Greeks took a more retributive approach. The name
Nemesis refers to the deity who restored balance, but it
soon took on the more menacing meaning of wrath or righteousness,
and the hubris of not first consulting the gods.
Today we can still see many other words generated during wartime.
The German kampf, which means struggle, comes from the
Latin word campus, a style of fortification. Those
sending a child to camp might not realize the
militaristic implications. The same is true of champion,
another English word from the same root. In a lighter vein,
during the Crusades, Westerners learned to play various games
with al Zahr, meaning the dice, this becoming
the English word hazard. It was then associated with
corruption and uncertainty, but no one today would connect that
with the elegant casinos where gambling is considered recreation.
The Old Dutch word bolwerk refers to a fortification or
bulwark. It evolved into the French boulevard. Travel or
travailler evolved from the Latin word
tripullare, a three-sectioned whip to encourage laborers
in the defeated provinces to work harder, thus to
torture. The Latin laborar evolved into the
English word labor. In ancient times, travel almost
always involved working.
Like metaphor and slang, colorful military language is
incorporated into common use by virtue of its distinctiveness of
meaning. Terms like canteen, sad sack, and chopper, along with an
array of acronyms, like AWOL, GI, and SNAFU, not to mention jihad
and humvee, are quickly incorporated into everyday speech. It
tells us that American English is a growing and changing language
that reflects a vital and energetic people. Like our accents, the
words we choose become our ambassadors to the world.
"A powerful agent is the right word. Whenever we come upon one of
those intensely right words in a book or a newspaper the
resulting effect is physical as well as spiritual, and
by Mark Twain