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 is the executive producer of Slate’s podcasts. Follow him on Twitter.

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."

EPW: Enemy prisoner of war. This is now the term of choice in the American military over the less specific POW. The latter term, however, is still applied to U.S. troops taken prisoner.

Fedayeen Saddam ("Saddam's Men of Sacrifice"): An Iraqi paramilitary group believed to have had between 30,000 and 40,000 troops at the war's start. Founded in 1995 by Odai Hussein, Saddam's son. Perhaps this is one new term we all should have known a long time ago.

FIBUA: Fighting in Built-Up Areas. A military acronym that may be heard more often in the coming days.

Fog of war: An old favorite given new relevance by those Mesopotamian sandstorms.

Frag, Fragging: A Vietnam-era term for the murder of an officer (usually an unpopular one) by his own troops. It comes from "fragmentation grenade," which was a weapon of choice for the attacks.

Granularity: A military term for specific details. As British Maj. Gen. Albert Whitley said at a recent press conference in Kuwait, "What I thought I'd do for you is try and give you some granularity, some explanation of the security situation out in Iraq …"

MOAB: No, not the Mother of All Bombs, although the Pentagon clearly isn't unhappy with the nickname given its new 21,000-pound blockbuster. It really stands for Massive Ordnance Air Blast. (See this "War Stories" for more on the "palace buster.")

MOPP: Mission-Oriented Protective Posture. U.S. troops wear MOPP gear to protect against chemical and biological weapons. The amount of gear increases with the threat level, which ranges from MOPP 0 to MOPP 4.

Mouseholing: A technique in urban combat to keep troops from having to move around outdoors in a hostile built-up area. Instead, the invading force moves house to house by blasting holes through adjoining interior walls of apartment buildings.

MOUT: Military Operations on Urbanized Terrain. (See FIBUA.)

Pro-everything: Since "anti" sounds so negative, some activists who oppose the war now want to be called "pro-peace." However, "pro" can have its own pitfalls, such as when it's attached to "war." Some who support the conflict prefer to be called "pro-troops" or "pro-liberation." Reminiscent of the eternal debate over abortion terminology.

Regime change: The removal of Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants from power, one way or another. Likely to catch on in venues such as electoral politics and hostile corporate takeovers.

Shock and awe: Dropping a large number of bombs on an area in a short period to frighten the enemy and sap his will to fight. The military's use of the term dates back to a 1996 book called Shock and Awe: Achieving Rapid Dominance, the result of work by a Pentagon study group. Even though the tactic doesn't seem to have had quite the desired effect in Baghdad (perhaps because the Iraqis knew it was coming), it may be the term most likely to stick in our culture. Within hours of the campaign's launch, "shock and awe" was already being used by writers in very nonmilitary contexts. (One of the first was Slate's David Edelstein, in this pre-Oscars "Dialogue.")

Sojo: Solo journalist, specifically one who can transmit TV reports from the field without a crew. Think Al Franken with a satellite dish on his head, only real.

Unilaterals: Journalists who are not embedded with U.S. or British forces and are making their way around the war zone on their own or in small groups. An admirable although dangerous thing to do. Most of the reporters killed so far have been unilaterals.

Vertical envelopment: A variation on what's better known as "flanking" the enemy. In this case, it means using aircraft to lift forces over and behind the enemy's position. A term used a little in previous conflicts but coming into wider use now.

For the record, wars can also on occasion "soften" (kill off parts of) language. Here's one term that has probably been done in by recent events:

Homicide bomber: The Bush administration's attempt to shift the focus in suicide bombings away from the bomber and toward the victims. An admirable goal, but news organizations (except, on occasion, Fox) have resisted the term, and now it seems even Gen. Tommy Franks won't go along. The problem is, most bombers are trying to commit homicide. The suicide part is what's different and, especially, lethal.