Ladies and gentlebeings, allow me to introduce you to a project called, “Choose Your Words Carefully.” In this semi-regular series of essays, I will examine and dismantle – for your entertainment, edification and possibly exhaustion – oft-used and sadly oft-misunderstood words – specific lexemes plucked from our everyday language and dragged into the light.
Today’s word is grandiose in spite of its small size. It’s easy to spell, but difficult to define. Easy to begin, but difficult to stop. It carries implications far beyond our understanding despite the casual way it’s often used.
Today’s word is: WAR
War. When spoken aloud, it almost sounds like the snarling of a nameless beast. It has a deep and profound meaning, and as our history has shown, has been a mainstay of human evolution, despite how counterintuitive to growth and progress it truly is.
It’s impossible to accurately identify how many people have been killed by war throughout history, but many atrocitologists have estimated that approximately 200 million have died either directly or indirectly as a result of conflict. In the 20th century alone.
Note: Yes, there is such a thing as an Atrocitologist – a person who studies atrocities around the world. The existence of such a profession should say something about us, n’est-ce pas?
The word war can be traced back to the Indo-European root wers, meaning “to confuse, or mix up.” One could argue that anyone who believes war is an appropriate solution to any disagreement is indeed “confused and mixed up,” but that’s… another tale for another time.
Oddly, as profound and terrifying the word can be, we casually toss it about in our everyday speech in the same way we use words like car, tree or adscititious. Don’t believe me? Take a look at the phrases we use on a daily basis:
- At our places of work, departments may come into conflict and engage in a turf war.
- When we have a disagreement, we often end up in a war of words.
- Intense online criticism is often called a flame war.
- When angry, we say someone is on the warpath.
- When at play, our children will sometimes have a tug of war.
- We refer to finances earmarked for election campaigns as a war chest.
- Speaking of politics, party staff will often meet in a war room to discuss ways to win the next election.
- Someone with tremendous experience in a particular field is often called an old war horse.
- War paint is a pejorative used by men to describe women’s makeup. (Even more insulting for the native people for whom this pejorative was originally intended.)
And those are just the idioms that use the word war specifically. There are countless others that are related to conflict, such as bite the bullet, don’t shoot the messenger, double-edged sword, drop a bombshell, fight an uphill battle, get the axe, etc. that we use without ever realizing their actual meaning or implication.
Dear reader, you may believe that I am merely wallowing in semantics, that words are not as important as the intention behind them. I’d be inclined to agree, but I would also argue that when we use words denoting conflict, strife and violence in our everyday speech, we diminish the power of those words. We desensitize ourselves, making the physical manifestations all the more likely.
I would like to leave you with one final point. Any sane person will tell you that if a conflict must happen, then it is in the best interests of all involved to end it as quickly as possible. History has shown us that declaring war has invariably been the best way to prolong a conflict, not end it. Negotiations and debates between conflicting parties may be slow. They may take weeks, even months, but wars can take years. There are no casualties in a negotiation, except perhaps patience and the occasional ego. No collateral damage, no loss of life or destruction of property.
Consider the war on drugs and the war on poverty. (The war on terror deserves its own essay methinks.) They’ve been going on for years, with very little progress being made, and yet they have cost the world dearly in lives and resources. Declaring “war” on an issue has become the go-to political policy in recent years. Not doing anything about it you understand – simply declaring war on it.
Perhaps declaring war is the wrong metaphor to use. Resolving issues such as poverty or drug abuse doesn’t need combatants and righteous anger, it requires compassion and intelligent discourse. Sadly, compassion and intelligent discourse are often the first casualties of any war, metaphorical or otherwise.
No conflict can be resolved when the voices of reason are drowned out by battle cries and the sound of guns.