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Language, Military: Official Terminology

Language, Military: Official Terminology. Official military terminology takes a wide range of forms, some intended purely for internal use, others meant to represent the military to the outside. At its most basic level, official terminology functions to narrow the potential meaning of particular words. In casual speech, there is often substantial ambiguity in the way a given word is used. There can therefore be a wide range of possible interpretations. This is tolerable in informal conversation, where a misunderstanding can usually be rectified; but military organizations must be prepared to operate under great stress, in situations where misunderstanding can lead to catastrophe. Thus, official terminology for internal use attempts to foreclose as many interpretive options as possible in order to reduce the likelihood of error or misjudgment.

As with most specialized language forms, focusing on the function that language plays within an organization is not sufficient. All use of language bears an implicit logic about the world that can provide insight into the organization responsible for that language. Put more broadly, whenever a specialized language exists for the use of a particular group, that language can provide evidence useful in understanding the way the group views itself, its role in the larger world, and the world as a whole. Language use carries with it implicit arguments, which can be made explicit through careful analysis in order better to assess the world view the language helps to create and sustain. The use of language always has embedded within it these implicit arguments. A statement as simple as, “Forward presence is a vital naval mission,” contains a variety of assumptions about the likelihood of future conflict, the likely locations of future conflicts, the probability that future conflicts will involve national interests, and the way military power can be manipulated to affect the chance of conflict starting. Language, then, constructs a social reality.

Official military language has at least three characteristics that are revealed through linguistic analysis. It tends to be a sanitized form of language; it emphasizes the expertise of those who use it; and it contains a specific notion of hierarchy.

The language of expertise marks any professional community. Indeed, the ability to use and understand specific technical language is a large part of what determines membership in professional communities. This aspect of technical and professional language is even more marked when the language is in large part characterized by acronyms and jargon that in effect create another language altogether. Technical language of this type emphasizes the expertise necessary for participation and therefore implicitly makes the argument that knowledge of the language serves in effect as a threshold for participation: If you cannot understand and use the language, you mark yourself as being unqualified to participate in the technical debates taking place. This is no less true of official documents emanating from the Department of Defense (which are likely to make arcane statements such as “SECDEF authorized CINCENT's use of two JSTARS”) than those written by doctors, lawyers, or engineers.

Euphemistic language can serve to mask and deemphasize what it is that the words are actually referring to. It is easier to refer to “surgical strikes” and “collateral damage” than to bombing attacks in which civilians are killed. Such indirect language is especially notable in military discussions about the use of nuclear weapons: phrases like “first,” “second,” or “preemptive” strikes, or “ride out” and “assured destruction” are preferred over those connoting apocalyptic levels of destruction.

By the same token, this creation of what is virtually another language not only builds a wall between the insider and the outsider but simultaneously reinforces the connection between those who are masters of the form. The ability to control and manipulate an insider linguistic form identifies one as a member of the institution, forging an automatic link between people who have the same ability, while reinforcing the distinction between these insiders and outsiders. Indeed, military service has its own jargon, acronyms, phrases. Not only do different services use different terms; sometimes the same word can mean different things to different services.

Yet another form of official language is used when the military communicates with those on the outside. During conflict, for example, official rhetoric can emphasize the humanitarian concerns with which we go to war, or can distract attention from the costs that are inevitably involved in the use of military power. Descriptions center on the technology that has been destroyed, so that there are reports of the number of sorties successfully completed, the number of aircraft or tanks destroyed. This permits a focus on the objects, the things, and away from the people close to or within the objects destroyed.


Peter Berger and and Thomas Luckmann , The Social Construction of Reality, 1967.
George Lakoff and and Mark Johnson , Metaphors We Live By, 1980.
Edward Tabor Linenthal , Symbolic Defense: The Cultural Significance of the Strategic Defense Initiative, 1989.
Cori Dauber , Negotiating from Strength: Arms Control and the Rhetoric of Denial, Political Communication and Persuasion, 7 (1990), pp. 97–115.
Paul Chilton , Security Metaphors, 1996.

Cori Dauber

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