A roadside bomb exploding in Baghdad
The most prominent word to come out of the war in Iraq isn't "insurgent" (an Iraqi who wants the Yanks to go home), "sectarian violence" (translation: 'not civil war'), or "Green Zone" (a name which gives environmental protection a whole new meaning). It's roadside bomb, the phrase that I've selected as Word of the Year for 2006.
It’s not that roadside bombs are so new. They first appear in a 1979 AP story about Basque terrorists, and they soon became popular in Lebanon and Bosnia as well. The term roadside bomb is not quite as old as the related car bomb, used in Northern Ireland in 1972, or suicide bomber, with a destructive history going back at least to 1941. Nor is it as popular as either of those terms on the Internet. Googling “roadside bomb” nets 1.7 million hits, a four-fold jump since the start of the war. But suicide and car bombs still lead the Google hit parade, each with more than 2 million served.
Despite its popularity, you won’t find roadside bomb defined in any dictionary, because lexicographers seem to think the term is self-explanatory. But roadside bombs have become something special in Iraq. Unlike other explosives, the name roadside bomb has a ring to it that is both catchy and paradoxical. It combines the peaceful image of the roadside rest or the country fruit stand with the element of surprise provided by the explosion that typically follows when a Humvee drives by. And the explosion does follow: roadside bombs have become the weapon of choice for Iraqi insurgents.
Like other wars, the war in Iraq affects not just the lives of individuals and the course of history, it also changes the language landscape. The two World Wars embedded terms like “Kilroy,” and “radar” into English, not to mention catch phrases like “making the world safe for democracy” and “peace in our time.” The first Gulf War brought Saddam Hussein’s warning that American invaders would face “the mother of all battles,” which proved a dud. But his phrase “the mother of all . . .” managed to hang on.
The second Gulf War also started with a slogan, “shock and awe,” which backfired when the peace in Iraq proved deadlier than the war it followed. GW II did bring regime change to Iraq – though we’re still waiting to see what the regime will change into. “Spider hole,” a vintage term from WW II, popped up briefly when Saddam Hussein was found hiding in one. Then it faded away. But weapons of mass destruction, a phrase that has proved more visible than the weapons it refers to, is a keeper.
Roadside bombs deserve special recognition this year because in a relatively short time they have carved out a deep niche – actually a scar – in our lexicon. Roadside bombs explode regularly in the news as well as by the roadside. They’ve made the headlines on twenty-eight of the past thirty days, and it wouldn’t surprise me if there’s a roadside bomb on today’s front page.
It’s the pervasive roadside bombs, car bombs, and suicide bombers, not WMD’s, that are actually killing people in Iraq. One third of all the coalition troop fatalities in Iraq since the start of the war were caused by roadside bombs, and they’re presently causing half the deaths in that country. The American military, which brought us “snafu” – situation normal, all f***ed up – lumps these weapons of limited destruction under the umbrella acronym IED, for “improvised explosive device.” IED’s in turn lead to another Iraq War term, “hillbilly armor,” an improvised defensive device – bits of scrap metal and ballistic glass – used by soldiers to “uparmor” their trucks. Although former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld clearly wanted an army that didn’t complain about snafus and unprotected Humvees, he admitted to the army that he did have that even real armor can’t stand up to roadside bombs.
It would be wonderful if roadside bombs proved as evanescent as the weapons of mass destruction they replaced. But despite the upcoming changes in Congress, our troops will be embedded in Iraq for the foreseeable future, and “roadside bomb” is assured not just a continuing place in the headlines, but also a permanent place in the dictionary.