A regrettable linguistic benchmark

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Words are more than letters. They are illustrative instruments, obfuscating objects, paintbrushes of policy and pap. Some are as serious as a sepulcher, others lighter than lint.

Once entering the dictionary, however, they become benchmarks of our society’s development. For words, entree into the dictionary represents an ascension from the purgatory of slang into linguistic paradise, a heavenly atmosphere of credibility and permanence.

Merriam-Webster recently announced the latest additions to the dictionary, which sparked a ginormous (extremely large) amount of media coverage, most of it giggly about the new words, like: smackdown (a decisive defeat), hardscape (structures built into a landscape), perfect storm (disaster caused by concurrence of events), microgreen (a shoot of salad plant), crunk (style of Southern rap music), viewshed (visible natural environment).

Quite the graduating class, about 100 new words in all. There’s one, however, unlike the others. If a person, he would have shifty eyebrows, a cockeyed, uneasy grin and wild eyes barely concealing a murderous soul.

Quietly, menacingly, the word – an abbreviation, really – IED (improvised explosive device) has entered our language. It’s a euphemism, military-speak for a simple word – bomb – yet its ubiquitous application in this wartime has earned IED its own dictionary entry.

Its entry into these hallowed pages is an uncomfortable milestone in the history of our language, and this conflict, because the price of IED’s inclusion has been many lives.

Like Pfc. Jason Dore of Moscow, the latest Maine soldier to fall in Iraq, killed by an IED. Or Sgt. Richard Parker of Phillips before him, also killed by IEDs while patrolling the dangerous ground of the Middle East. Or any of the thousands of innocents and combatants whose blood has been shed by these death merchants.

In a non-war context, the phrase IED could apply to somewhat harmless objects, products of Mr. Wizard-like experiments to make combustion entertaining. But IED, in modern parlance, elicits only one image.

A quiet roadside. Unsuspecting victims. Thunderous explosions. The kind of scenes broadcast almost daily from different corners of the globe. IEDs are careless weapons, meant to terrorize by sound and shock.

Today, talk about the Iraq conflict focuses on benchmarks (points of reference from which measurements can be made). Congress established several for Iraq’s government; on Thursday, an interim White House report on progress toward them was met with skepticism, derision, and a House vote to start withdrawals from Iraq within 120 days.

Iraq’s benchmarks, it seems, are a matter of interpretation. Some see the interim report as indicative of failure, while others see promise in its meager progression. President Bush is urging patience, and threatening a veto.

Debate on the meaning of the benchmarks will likely continue until Sept. 15, when the leader of our armed forces in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, delivers his final report to Congress. The date is an important domestic benchmark in this war.

As is IED’s regrettable induction into the English language.

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