By Paul Farhi
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, January 10, 2007
It's one of those words -- like "chad" or "blog" or "waterboarding" -- that's suddenly become the go-to phrase to describe a contemporary phenomenon.
"Surge," the country's latest catchword, is what President Bush intends to propose tonight in a prime-time speech -- a "surge" of troops, perhaps 20,000, to bolster the American military presence in Iraq.
A surge. It conjures: the rush of the ocean tides. Or what a young person feels upon the first blush of love. Or what a sports team does late in the game. Among its definitions, "any sudden, strong increase, as of energy, enthusiasm, etc.," according to Webster's New World College Dictionary.
What we have here is shorthand for a very long debate.
The very vagueness of "surge" might make it the politically perfect word for what is likely to be a controversial policy. Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the new House speaker, framed her apparent opposition to sending more troops to Iraq by using a more freighted substitute: "escalation."
In that context, surge is a euphemism for a euphemism. "Escalation" was variously ascribed to both President Lyndon Johnson's policy of increased military aid to Vietnam, and the U.S. "incursion" -- yet more euphemisms! -- into Laos and Cambodia in 1970 under President Richard Nixon. Perhaps to avoid echoes of that war, "surge" is the Pentagon and White House's preferred coinage.
"Surge," though, has no real history or meaning as a military construct -- unlike, say, "tank" or "M-16." It doesn't appear in reference books such as the Oxford Companion to Military History, the Encyclopedia of the Vietnam War or the Encyclopedia of the U.S. Military. Nor does it show up in the Department of Defense's official Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms.
"It just seems to be a term that cropped up that seemed useful," says Lewis Sorley, a retired Army officer and prominent military historian.
Sorley notes that the word is politically savvy because "surge" seems to suggest a sharp but passing event. "If you're trying to engender support from those who have doubts about the war, it's a useful word," he says. "Because if this is a temporary event, it might be more palatable."
It's not clear who coined the word "surge" to describe troop increases. But it gained quick currency -- that is, it surged -- in November. Its first apparent journalistic use in reference to Iraq was in the New York Times on Nov. 21. A day after The Washington Post reported that the Pentagon was considering whether to deploy more troops, the Times said unnamed Pentagon officials had dubbed this "the surge option."
Thereafter, variations of the phrase "surge option" appeared in newspaper stories and TV reports, then was quickly shorthanded to "surge." (The brevity of the word even might account for its popularity in headlines -- taking up far less space than more neutral phrases, such as "troop increase.")
And that raises a question: Should the news media adopt the terminology favored by policymakers when those words can be construed as politically loaded? That question has haunted journalists for decades, stretching back to debates over abortion ("pro-choice" or "pro-life"), the Mideast ("terrorists" or "militants") and, of course, Iraq itself ("sectarian conflict" or "civil war").
"Surge" falls into "the Orwellian zone between language and politics," says Tom Rosenstiel, director of the Project for Excellence in Journalism, which studies and evaluates the media. "The president and his advisers would be remiss if they didn't come up with a term suited to their new policy. But journalists would be equally remiss if they just thoughtlessly repeated the term without pondering the policy and its implications."
The word has achieved so much currency that it was in the running to be the year's most notable, as chosen by the American Dialect Society, a 117-year-old organization of linguists, lexicographers and other "word people," at its annual meeting last week.
Wayne Glowka, an English professor at Georgia College and State University who chairs the society's new-words committee, says the group considered the word as a euphemism. That's nothing new for words with military origins, he notes. The military has long been a prime source of such words: "collateral damage" to describe civilian war deaths; "daisy cutter," for a bomb with a huge blast area; "friendly fire," for shooting at those on the same side.
"Surge" failed to win the group's word-of-the-year competition (that honor went to "Plutoed" -- to demote or devalue something, as happened to the planet last year). "The argument was that 'surge' really didn't emerge until late in the year, so it couldn't be the word for all of 2006," Glowka says. But he thinks that seems destined to change:
"I'd say it's likely to be a very important word for 2007."