FIBUA, mouseholing, and other words of war.

FIBUA, mouseholing, and other words of war.

FIBUA, mouseholing, and other words of war.

Language and how we use it.
April 4 2003 5:33 PM

The Words of War

Where do MOUTs and MOPPs come from?

The next time you drop by a Blockbuster video store, pause for a moment to imagine your grandchildren someday frequenting a restaurant chain called Shock and Awe. Will they give a second thought to the wartime origin of the name, anymore than you think of a "blockbuster" as a 4,000-pound World War II-era bomb?


As destructive as wars are, they seem to have a generative effect on language. They've given us "slacker," "shellshocked" and "no man's land" (World War I); "Jeep," "firestorm" and "snafu" (World War II); "brainwash" (Korea); "fallout" (Cold War); "friendly fire" (Vietnam); "the mother of all … fill in the blank" (Gulf War I); and numerous others.

Andy Bowers Andy Bowers

Andy Bowers, the creator and executive producer of Slate podcasts, is the co-founder and chief content officer of Panoply.

Which words and phrases will Gulf War II inject into our lexicon? Here's a rundown of some of the new and recycled terms that seek to capture the "hearts and minds" (Vietnam) of English speakers.

Cakewalk: Something very easy. In this case, a description that may or may not apply to the war, and then may or may not apply to peace. (See Slate's recent "Explainer" on the origin of "cakewalk.")

"Calibrate me": A phrase used by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to request that those around him check the details of what he's about to say. A favorite of Chatterbox's.

Catastrophic success: Despite being an apparent oxymoron, the Pentagon uses it positively to mean an extremely quick victory. However, it can also describe a success that comes too quickly, before the victor is ready to handle it.

Coalition forces: A new twist on an old idea since it implies the forces were gathered together on behalf of the coalition. Actually, in this case, it was the other way around.

Dead-enders: Another Rummy-ism. It refers to Iraqi soldiers and irregulars willing to fight to the end for Saddam. Presumably, even if they survive, they will have poor job prospects in the new Iraq.

Decapitation strike: An effort to remove the "head," or leadership, of a regime. Unlike other military euphemisms, which tend to obscure the violent actions they describe, at least this one actually uses a term that refers to killing people.

Embedding, Embedded: The Pentagon's term for placing journalists into military units. The reporters are known as "embeds," and many an editorial cartoon has tweaked the phrase into some variation of "in bed."