English Language Essays - Warring Words

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With the end of the 'Cold war' in 1989, has there been more openness in the discourse of 'deterrence' or in 'warring words'?

The Cold War has been described as 'a nearly fifty-year war of words and wills', (Maus, 2003: 13). It was a period during which most individuals lived in constant fear that 'the bomb' would be dropped, effectively obliterating life as we know it. Direct combat itself was a very small part of this war: 'The Cold War, fought with national ideologies, economic posturing and infinite defense budgets, festered without any combat or mass casualties (at least among the superpowers) throughout the latter half of the 20th century before finally coming to a head in the mid-'80s' (Hooten n.d.). When the Cold War finally came to its ultimate end, the words of war shifted in meaning. 'Warring words' continued to be part of the popular vocabulary, but their connotations had changed, and their definitions shifted. The discourse of 'deterrence' faded away, as there was no longer a need for it. This paper will discuss the ways in which the Cold War has affected not only the history of the world, but also the history of the words that changed along with it.

The Words ofWar

The language we use to describe the things we do is a significant reflectionof who we are at a given time in the culture. Communication is an essentialtool for human beings, as we are highly social creatures by nature. The need tocommunicate is an integral part of our composition. However, in the course oftransferring information to one another, there is always a margin of error. Thismeans that miscommunication is bound to occur. According to Coupland, Wiemann,and Giles, 'language use and communication are in fact pervasively and evenintrinsically flawed, partial and problematic" (1991: 3).

Becausecommunication is so important to humans as a species, it is only natural thatmiscommunication brings with it some sort of consequence. This is a universalconcept, and it affects all of us on a very basic level. As Banks, Ge, andBaker assert, one's theoretical orientation is of no importance in thisrespect: 'A key sense of miscommunication, however, regardless of one'stheoretical orientation, is something gone awry communicatively that has socialconsequences for the interactants; without social consequences, the phenomenonwould be of trivial interest' (1991: 105).

As aresult, conflict is inevitable in society, and a worst-case scenario ofconflict is, of course war. War is more than a militaristic action that isplayed out with bullets and bombs as tools. Words, too, are very much a part ofany war effort, and they can be very powerful as weapons. The Cold War has beendescribed as 'a nearly fifty-year war of words and wills', as both sidesaggressively tried to promote and protect their respective ideologies at homeand abroad while always remaining aware of the repercussions of pushing thelimits too far' (Maus, 2003: 13). How did this war of words manage to continue forso long without reaching the stage of physical combat?

Oneperspective on this is offered by Grimshaw, who asserts that 'so long asconflict talk is sustained (i.e., if participants do not withdraw) it does notseem to be the case that hostility ('ugliness') will increase without someconcomitant increase in intensity' (1990: 295). During the nearly fifty years'duration of the Cold War, neither opponent was willing to back down, yetneither one was willing to plunge into what might turn into a major war withdire, irreversible consequences. It was primarily a war fought with words andbravado, a dramatic opus played on an international stage. In fact, the ColdWar was 'fought with nationalideologies, economic posturing and infinite defense budgets, festered withoutany combat or mass casualties' (Hooten, n.d.).

Thisis in keeping with Grimshaw's assertion that, although disagreements can reachhigh levels of emotional upheaval, they do not necessarily have to result inphysical interaction. 'Friendly disputes can get quite 'hot'; at least to somepoint they can apparently increase in intensity without the occurrence ofhostility' (Grimshaw, 1990: 295). The ever-present fear of nuclear obliterationmay have had a great deal to do with this abeyance of action. Much of the worldwas still numbed by the disastrous tragedy that this power had wrought in thepast, and there was great consternation at the thought of reaching a level ofconflict that would require use of it again. Therefore, the Cold War remained awar of words.

Words,of course, are more than mere utterances. We communicate a great aboutourselves when we use themmore than the actual message we are seeking toconvey at any given time. As Halliday explains, 'in all languages, words,sounds and structures tend to become charged with social value' (1978: 166). Instates of conflict, Halliday asserts that individuals tend to develop a code ofwords that not only reflects that conflict, but also helps the individual tocome to terms with it on some level. He refers to this code of words as an'antilanguage', and he asserts that 'it is to beexpected that, in the antilanguage, the social values will be more clearlyforegrounded' (Halliday, 1978: 166).

Sincethe purpose of an 'antilanguage' is to give individuals an alternative realitythat is acceptable to them, the theory may be applied to the language of theCold War. Living with the constant threat of nuclear war is an unbearable stateof mind for most individuals; therefore, they must create a world that is morelivable to them. This concept is echoed in the writings of Lemert and Branaman,who assert that:

'Whatever his position in society, the person insulates himself byblindnesses, half-truths, illusions, and rationalizations. He makes an adjustmentby convincing himself, with the tactful support of his intimate circle, that heis what he wants to be and that he would not do to gain his ends what theothers have done to gain theirs' (1997: 109).

Hence,the development of this different worldview is basically a survival mechanismduring a time of great uncertainty and turmoil. The widely respected historianHobsbawm has explained that 'generations grew up under the shadow of globalnuclear battles which, it was widely believed, could break out any moment, anddevastate humanity' (1996: 194). The fear that this knowledge brought toindividuals naturally affected them on a very deep level. Through the use of anantilanguage, they were able to go on with the activities of daily life bydesigning a safe cocoon of illusory safety in which they could feelor pretendto feelsafe. As Halliday puts it, 'a social dialect is the embodiment of amildly but distinctly different worldviewone which is therefore potentiallythreatening, if it does not coincide with one's own' (1978: 179).

Post-Cold WarLanguage

Whenthe five decades of decades of this war came to an end in 1989, the attitudesin place in society necessarily underwent a change, and that change was reflectedin the language used as well. The fall of communism in Europe, combined withthe end of the Cold War, were enough to bring new hope to the people of theUnited States. According to Mason, 'the vicious circle of threats and distrustwas replaced by a new spiral of trust and reassurance' (1992: 187). In thismostly positive atmosphere, the constant threat of nuclear attack abated, andpeople were able to breathe more easily. The words of war lost the impact theyonce had.

AsHooten has explained, the words of war were tinged with fear, helplessness, andfrustration throughout the years of the Cold War. After it ended, the words didnot disappear from the language, but began to take on new connotations 'Thewords of war were once the moral and emotional defense of the nation,corresponding with the real memories and motivations of an embattledcitizenry', asserts Hooten. After 1989, as images of war receded from theAmerican psyche, 'the language of war invaded the common lexicon of America'(Hooten, n.d.). Examples of this are ubiquitous, and have become so common thatwe are often barely conscious of it.

Forexample, words such as 'defend' and 'bomb', which were once tainted by theassociation with war, have taken on new and less menacing uses. During thesecond half of the twentieth century, people may have felt a constant need tobe ready to defend themselves in case of nuclear attack. Post-Cold War use ofthis word became something different: a politician may 'defend' his platform.The constant concern and ever-present worry about dropping the 'bomb' duringthe Cold War era has resulted in a transformation of this word as well:

'Consider again the numerous,non-militant ways in which the word "bomb" is used: Frat brothersget bombed on a Saturday night. Your new car is 'da bomb. Did you see thatcomedian bomb on Letterman last night? The quarterback threw a long bomb towin the game"' (Hooten, n.d.).


Languagehas changed since the nearly fifty years of the Cold War era. Notice, forexample, the language of Reagan's "Star Wars" Speech, which wasdelivered on March 23, 1983: '"Deterrence" means simply this: makingsure any adversary who thinks about attacking the United States, or our allies,or our vital interests, concludes that the risks to him outweigh any potentialgains' (1983: 250). In contemporary times, 'deterrence' can mean many things,most of which do not pertain to war at all. In a similar vein, many of theviolent definitions associated with 'warring' words have fallen out of use.These words have become part of the common lexicon, used to describe thequotidian events of daily life without any sense of impending doom. Words such as'battle', 'bomb', 'defend', and 'massacre', have lost the potency they heldduring the years of the Cold War. They have taken on new, less menacingdefinitions and uses.

Languageis an integral part of the human experience. The language we use to describethe things we do is a significant reflection of who we are at a given time inthe culture. Because we are highly social by nature, communication is vitallyimportant as a tool for human beings. The need to communicate is an integralpart of our composition. However, as noted earlier, in the course oftransferring information to one another, there is always a margin of error.This means that miscommunication is bound to occur.

'Consequently, formiscommunication to have impact, it is not likely to be a perturbation ofsmooth performance that is repaired in the current interaction' (Banks, Ge andBaker 1991: 105).


Coupland, N., Giles, H., and Wiemann, J.M. (Eds.). 1991. Miscommunicationand Problematic Talk London: Sage.

Banks, Stephen P., Ge, Gao, & Baker, Joyce. 1991.'Intercultural Encounters and Miscommunication'. In: Coupland, N., Giles,H., and Wiemann, J.M. (Eds.) "Miscommunication" andProblematic Talk. London: Sage, 103-120.

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Gumperz, John and Jenny Cook-Gumperz. 1982.'Introduction: language and the communication of social identity. Pp.1-21 in Gumperz, John, ed. 1982. Language and social identity. London:Cambridge University Press.

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Hobsbawm, Eric. 1996. 'The Cold War Was aRelatively Stable Peace'. Pp. 193-198 in

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Hooten, Jon. n.d. 'Fighting Words: The WarOver Language'.

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Lemert, Charles and Branaman, Ann, eds.1997. The Goffman Reader. Oxford: Blackwell.

Mason, David. 1992. 'The Last Years of theSoviet Union'. Pp. 179-191 in Maus, Derek, ed. 2003, The Cold War.London: Greenhaven Press.

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Reagan, Ronald, 1983. 'The Star WarsSpeech'. Document 22 in Maus, Derek, ed. 2003, The Cold War.London: Greenhaven Press.