"Smart Bomb" and "Friendly Fire": Hidden Violence behind Words

Muchnik, Malka

Bar-Ilan University, Israel


It is commonly thought that languages reflect the spirit of the society by which they are spoken. In a belligerent society we can expect to find a wide lexicon related to war (Chilton, 1987). Military expressions may be found not only in the vocabulary attributed to the army, but in very different areas. Indeed, many metaphorical expressions used in Modern Hebrew were taken from the military world. Among them we can find slang expressions, and even personal compliments, like ptsatsa ('bomb'), totah ('cannon') or pagaz ('cannon shell').

Unlike this, in many instances the Army itself refrains from using expressions that remind war. The reason for this is that they deliberately try to avoid negative and threatening connotations. One way of mitigating and softening people's feelings about war is the use of positive words to indicate violent events and the weapons designated for this purpose. This usage is ubiquitous to different languages and societies, yet in a society, like the Israeli society, living in conflict and violence this phenomenon is much more pronounced.

In this lecture I will describe the use of a unique lexicon in the Israeli army and show many expressions carrying a positive connotation, especially metaphoric, to hide and soften the real meaning of the facts. One of the most salient semantic fields in this kind of usage is the use of expressions taken from nature. Thus, for example, weapons are named by animal names, like shu'alit ('little fox'), dolphin or yanshuf ('owl'); some combatant units are called by fruit names, like duvdevan ('cherry'), haruv ('carob') or shaked ('almond'), and military operations are called by pleasant nature phenomena like dimdume boker ('morning twilight'), hanets hahama ('sunrise') or keshet be'anan ('rainbow').

A very ironical use can be found when attributing positive human characteristics to destructive military matters, such as ptsatsa haxama ('smart bomb') or esh yedidutit ('friendly fire'). Although these expressions are loan translations, the widespread use of them in the Israeli society emphasizes the euphemistic use of language in a violent environment. This is an intentional mean of moderating the threatening feelings that people may experience.

The goal of this lecture is to disclose linguistic devices used by official entities, such as the government, the army and the press, in order to minimize military facts, and present them in a more positive light. The special language used for the camouflage of military violence will be described following methods of critical linguistics and critical discourse analysis (Chilton, 1985; Fairclough, 1995; Fowler, 1996).

Chilton, Paul (ed.) (1985). Language and the Nuclear Arms Debate: Nukespeak Today. London & Dover: Frances Pinter Publisher.

Chilton, Paul (1987). "Metaphor, euphemism and the militarization of language". Current Research on Peace and Violence 10 (1), pp. 7-19.

Fairclough, Norman (1995). Critical Discourse Analysis: The Critical Study of Language. Harlow, England: Longman.

Fowler, Roger (1996). Linguistic Criticism. New York: Oxford University Press, 2nd. ed.

Session: Paper session
Critical Discourse Analysis
Thursday, April 3, 2008, 10:30-12:00
room: 11