All About English


The language of war

I’ve read an interesting article about how the Iraq war led to the appearance in English of a range of words, expressions and Three Letter Acronyms (TLAs) that previously couldn’t be found in dictionaries or were never heard on the news or read in newspapers. It’s not that these words never existed before, it’s more a case that the prominence of what was happening in Iraq expanded the circle of people who were now in contact with these lexical sets. Using evidence from the words that users of the online (US) Merriam-Webster dictionary were looking up between 2003 and 2006, lexicographers have put together an interesting picture not only of which new words were being added to the dictionary, but also which words people were looking up in order to make sense of the events that were unfolding.

Although some of these words are familiar to me – the infamous and clearly very hard to find WMDs for example – there are other TLAs that emerged such as the RPG (Rocket Propelled Grenade), IED (Improvised Exploding Device) and UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle). People were also curious to understand the difference between a hijab and a niqab, as well as looking up other commonly used words during the war such as regime, coalition, and brigade – perhaps if only to check the spelling. At the height of the conflict, the most commonly searched word was insurgent followed by collateral damage – democracy was in the top 20 most commonly searched words during the whole period.

Ten years on and the words most commonly searched for, and those that are being newly entered into the dictionary, have nothing to do with the traumatic events of a conflict. It would seem that our minds are now more concerned with the language of new technologies and perhaps the need to understand how they rapidly develop and unfold in our lives.

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