Words make a difference. Skipping a word such as "base," as in "base pay," can make a 15 percent difference. It could even lead to a 17 percent difference, and, if a paycheck is involved, the difference hurts. Let me explain:
Last February, budget director David A. Stockman took aim at the nation's $18.3 billion-a-year military retirement system and blasted it as "a scandal" and "an outrage." The blast set off repercussions in The Post.
That month, in addition to continuing news coverage, there were two columnist comments -- one on either side of the issue; seven letters to the editor expressing varying views; an excerpt from a pro-pension statement by the Reserve Officers Association and an editorial on the Stockman side.
In March there were four more letters to the editor, and the Outlook section carried an article in support of Mr. Stockman.
One of the most frequent arguments by Stockman partisans was that the present military pension program permits personnel to retire with only 20 years of service at 50 percent of "base" pay. If the word "base" is dropped, the correct figure is 35 percent of pay on the average.
The 15 percent difference comes about because about half the military's paychecks include payments for housing and food in addition to "base" pay, according to the Defense Department. Some checks are even larger in the active service because of such items as flight pay, jump pay or, in wartime, combat pay. Pensions, though, deal only with "base" pay, not the add-ons.
If you read that military personnel with 30 years' service can retire on three-fourths of their pay, the inclusion of the word "base" is even more critical, for the difference then becomes 17 percent on the average.
On April 7 a second Post editorial on military pensions noted that "a retiree can draw fully indexed benefits equal to 50 percent of final pay after 20 years, 75 percent after 30 years." The key word, "base," was omitted and left readers with a false impression. The statement was not corrected in an editorial, although a letter to the editor to that effect was published last week.
The military-pension controversy is hot enough without relying on incorrect statements.
Now to shift to another word problem: "Falashas," describing Ethiopian Jews who were airlifted from a land of drought and starvation to a better life in Israel.
A Post reader called to complain that "Falashas" was a disparaging term. Coincidentally, a Parade Magazine article described the name as an Amharic word meaning "stranger," but did not indicate it was offensive.
A former Africa correspondent for The Post acknowledged that there had been some unhappiness by Ethiopian Jews about the term, and said they preferred to be known as Israelis.
Research led me to Dr. Abraham Demoz, professor of linguistics at Northwestern University, an Ethiopian who has traveled in Israel. He said that historically there was "no basis" for charges that "Falasha" was in insulting or contemptuous term.
He traced the word to the Geez language, the ancient tongue of Ethiopia, and translated "Falasha" as "to migrate, to move from one place to another in a body," as they have done. He said they sometimes use the description "Beta Israel" in declaring they are part of the "House of Israel," but he does not consider them Israelis, members of the modern state.
Dr. Demoz acknowledged reports of young Ethiopian Jews' seeking to "dissociate themselves from old ways by shedding the name of 'Falashas.' likened this to changed attitudes toward the word "Negro," "which until the mid-'60s was not a pejorative term and was used freely by blacks hemselves. There was the Journal of Negro Education and the Negro College Fund, for example. But now 'Negro' is considered to have associations with old ways and old attitudes, and 'black' is preferred."
My column several weeks ago on avoiding positive words such as "claimed credit" or "claimed responsibility" for acts of terrorism drew varied responses -- some supportive, some rejecting the alternatives offered, but, sadly, offering no new suggestions. With terrorism still occurring, the Suggestion Box remains open.