, Newburyport, MA


June 9, 2014

Don't tell me there's another SNAFU!

“Why should I learn English?” asks Homer Simpson. “I’m never going to England!” I guess if you asked him if he spoke “American,” he’d say “Yes,” but he probably would not have given much thought to what American or English is made of.

American is a unique composite of other languages too numerous to name, in addition to Anglo-Saxon, the predecessor of English. Latin and Greek roots and foreign tongues new and old have contributed many thousand words to the “American” we speak every day.

On top of that, the vocabulary, idiom and jargon of what might be called language communities — medicine, sports, food and the military — the subject of today’s column — have supplied us with hundreds of useful, often catchy words and phrases.

There are many familiar military terms that show up in the news regularly, descriptions of soldiers and sailors and their equipment and activity. Of more lasting interest are those that have moved permanently into our daily language and become metaphorical.

You’ve heard the word “undermine” used in, for example, political debate to describe weakening of an opponent’s stance on some issue of the day? “Senator Phogbound used the new data to undermine the president’s position.” He is doing with ideas just what the army besieging a castle or fort might do: digging a long tunnel or “mine” under its walls to weaken them, or to place a charge of powder to blow them up.

Mines were used in medieval times, and as technology expanded, the term was transferred to the explosive devices themselves, and at some point a few hundred years ago, to bombs under water as well as under land.

A person whose behavior is violent and erratic is sometimes called colorfully “a loose cannon.” This is derived from that frightening situation on the deck of a man-of-war in the days of sailing ships when the restraining tackles holding a (say) massive carronade were broken or cut, and a couple of tons of iron on wheels crashed wildly about the deck as the ship rolled, destroying anyone or anything in its path.

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