Dr. Goodword’s Language Blog

Words that Describe and Designate

A “news” story that doesn’t seem to want to go away is the search for a new name for the US anti-terrorism activities. The Bush Administration called them “The Global War on Terrorism”, even though it is focused on only two countries, Iraq and Afghanistan. This fact makes the expression poorly descriptive; “Binational War on Terrorism” would more accurately describe what we are actually doing.

The problem is that “Global War on Terrorism” (or G-WOT, as it is called in the Pentagon) has become ingrained in the culture in ways that are difficult to undo. Members of the Obama administration prefer the phrase “Overseas Contingency Operations”. This phrase is broader and could include operations other than those against terrorism but for that reason it is vague and descriptive of something few people have a clear picture of.

The problem here is between two functions of words and phrases. Some words and phrases are descriptive, i.e. their meanings fit perfectly their references. Writer means “someone who writes” and is perfectly descriptive in that anyone who writes is a writer. Write means “write” and -er means “someone who”.

Other words, however, are simply designative, i.e. they designate (name) an object without describing it. London, for example, simply designates a city in England without describing it. Proper nouns are all designative: John, Mary, Algernon only designate certain people without describing them, as do words like genius, dolt, cut-up.

“The Global War on Terrorism” is both descriptive and designative. It is a poor description as mentioned above, so calls for a better term. However, as a designation of our two wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it works fine and has worked fine for eight years. Having ensconced itself over that period as the designation of what we are doing in those two countries, it will be very difficult, if at all possible, to replace it.

3 Responses to “Words that Describe and Designate”

  1. Nancy Dickerson Says:

    One of the biggest problems with the idea of “overseas contingency” is that we live HERE and we work here–we aren’t just going to war overseas. After all, the war was brought to us. Just take a plane somewhere and see if you aren’t reminded of 9-11 right here. Global Terrorism means everywhere on this old planet. Whether it is in Dagestan or Zimbabwe, the lack of governmental control over rebellious militants from other nations is quite evident. Honestly, don’t global and terrorism pretty well describe the situation?

  2. Stargzer Says:

    While Iraq and Afghanistan occupy the news, the Global War on Terrorism is fought in other countries and by other countries. The US is not the only target for a terrorist, just the highest value target — just as our friends in London or Spain. Now that some of the Taliban have been pushed from Afghanistan, Pakistan is learning about home-grown terrorism the hard way, and even home-grown terrorists can obtain support from abroad. Add in the pirates off the Horn of Africa andthe nightclub bombings in Southeast Asia and it truly IS a Global War On Terrorism.

  3. The Ridger Says:

    Security Theater in the US hasn’t much to do with GWOT. Nor has Iraq in general, at least at the beginning. Plus you canNOT fight a war against a tactic.

    It’s a stupid name which is now freighted with a number of meanings we would do well to distance ourselves from. At least, if we intend to distance ourselves from the evil we’ve committed in its name. If not, we might as well keep it.

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