What is A Euphemism?

"A euphemism is a substitution of a delicate or inoffensive term or phrase for one that has coarse, sordid, or otherwise unpleasant associations"

Euphemisms are novocaine for the conscience, they shade the truth, obscuring the meaning rather than enhancing it. Euphemisms have been effectly utlizied by our government to put comforting distance between ourselves and the violence in Iraq by making something brutal and ugly sound lofty and poetic (i.e., "Shock and Awe").

From the horrors of Abu-Ghraib to the never-ending violence on the streets of Baghdad, euphemisms have reduced "torture" to "abuse" and the slaughter of untold numbers of Iraqi civilians are now simply "collateral damage." Funny—we don’t hear over the national media, "A mine collapsed in Virginia, today, and of course there was some collateral damage."

What's in a Name?

"War"... what is it really? State-sponsored violence might be be another way of putting it but somehow "war" seems milder and acceptable.Military strategists drape an even thicker tissue of sanitizaton around military violence. They like to call it "the use of force." That sugar-coats it handsomely. "Force," after all, is nice. A forceful personality, a forceful argument-these can be quite admirable. But an atomic bomb hitting the population centers of Hiroshima or Nagasaki or the brutal leveling of Fallujah in Iraq or of settlements in Palestine needs a more honest word than "force."

"Force", like war, is a malicious euphemism. It averts our eyes from the horrors described by Archbishop Desmond Tutu: "Some two million children have died in dozens of wars during the past decade...This is more than three times the number of battlefield deaths of American soldiers in all their wars since 1776...Today, civilians account for more than 90 percent of war casualties."
- Daniel C. Maguire

Euphemisms Glossary

"Politically-honed" words and phrases used in the Iraq War...

Select the first letter of the word from the list below to jump to the corresponding section of the glossary.

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"I'm not a lawyer. My impression is that what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture. … I don't know if it is correct to say what you just said, that torture has taken place, or that there's been a conviction for torture. And therefore I'm not going to address the torture word."
Donald Rumsfeld, Defense Department Operational Update Briefing, May 4, 2004 - in response to the documented and photograpahed torture at Abu Ghraib

Air Campaign

Assertive disarmament
War (ironic)


Asymmetric warfare
Describes the imbalance between U.S. bombs and missiles and Iraqi soldiers who hide among civilians, wear suicide bombs, and shoot P.O.W.'s.


Blue on blue
An expression used to describe the accidental killing of allied forces by their own side. Another well-established term for the same concept is friendly fire.

Bomb damage assessments
Official U.S. investigations that follow air strikes, few details of which have surfaced so far.


Popular term introduced by U.S. hawk Kenneth Adelman to predict overnight success in Iraq. Adelman now says the phrase was "too glib."

Clean bombing
Bombing with pinpoint accuracy

Cleared (of enemy troops)

Coercive interrogation

Coercive potential
Military power

Coalition of the willing
President Bush's term for countries that support the war, some of which don't want to be named and most of which have little to offer. Besides the U.S. and Britain, only two other nations are contributing military support, and those troops account for less than 1 percent of "coalition" forces in Iraq.

Collateral damage
When we accidentally kill the wrong people—civilians killed during wartime; civilian casualties and damage incidental to the bombing of military targets; any incidental, undesirable consequence  (as with most war euphemisms, it disguises the horror of the reality it refers to—death and injury to innocent non-combatant)

Critical Incident Stress Management Unit
Official name for mental health workers who treat staff at the Delaware morgue where dead soldiers began arriving last week.


Dead checking
 U.S. military colloquial term for killing all wounded men in any suspected insurgent house they enter.

Decapitating the regime
Overthrowing the government or assassinating the head of the government (i.e., killing Saddam Hussein).

Decapitation strike
Bombs aimed at Hussein in the first hours of war, in a failed attempt to kill him.

Discriminate deterrence
Pinpoint bombing


Embedded media
Journalists who are escorted to the battlefield by U.S. troops, after agreeing to accept myriad censorship rules. The Pentagon views the recruits as "embedded for life," meaning that if they leave a unit, they probably cannot come back. Embeds deserve credit for risking their lives. But the label "in the field," which some editors attach to reports from the front line, has some cynics calling embeds "in the tank"—inevitably biased by their fear of losing precious access.

Enemy combatant
What’s in a name?. If you call it an “enemy combatant,” however, it has no legal rights as a criminal or rights under the Geneva Convention afforded to enemy soldiers.
Enhanced interrogation
Torture is illegal unless you call it “enhanced interrogation.”

Escalating sectarian violence
Bloody civil war

Military term for "expected to die," applied to an Iraqi who was shot in the head and lived, though most of his skull had come apart.

Extraordinary rendition
Sending terrorism suspects to countries that practice torture for interrogation

A U.S. "extra-judicial" process by which untried suspects are exported to other countries for imprisonment and interrogation. Individuals suspected of criminal activity, terrorism or association with terrorist groups can be subjected to extraordinary rendition

One CIA agent explained to a reporter how it worked in the 1990s. "We'd arrest them and send them to Jordan or Egypt, and they'd disappear," he said. They were not charged in the US, he said, because the evidence would not hold up in court.

Extreme prejudice
To kill without mercy


Irregular Iraqi troops with previous experience killing dissidents and prostitutes. Literally "one who sacrifices himself for a cause," but Donald Rumsfeld calls the name "a lie" and has banned his troops from using it. The Pentagon prefers "death squads" or "thugs."

Forward Operating Base Shell
Headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division in central Iraq. Soldiers nicknamed this and another army outpost "Camp Shell" and "Camp Exxon," supposedly because the fuel stations remind them of filling stations at home.

Forward Resuscitative Surgical Suites, a/k/a Devil Docs
Navy doctors who treat all wounded on the battlefield, including Iraqi soldiers and civilians. The docs say they give priority to people with the worst injuries, regardless of which side they're on.

Friendly Fire
Death caused to one's own troops


Ghost prisoners (also ghost detainees)
Suspected terrorists held by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency as unregistered prisoners in secret detention centers at an unrecorded host. Their detention denied, hidden from the Red Cross, legal or family access barred, their fate in the hands of unaccountable and unnamed U.S. personnel.

Hiring mercenaries


Human exploitation team
Marines who oversee "low-priority detainees" in Iraq.

Hunter-killer team or "Special Mission Unit"
Esentially (as its name implies) a military assassination squad let loose on the world, sent "to kick down the doors"; that is, to hunt down terrorists and assumedly other enemies without regard to national boundaries, declarations of war, or, evidently, legalities "niceties" of any sort.


IED - Improvised explosive device
(More details in the Acronymn Interactive)

A legal guarantee that the U.S. government seeks from all embedded reporters and contractors in Iraq, stating that the government is blameless and cannot be sued for property damage or personal injury or loss of life.

Information Operations
The new name for the Pentagon's propaganda unit. The old terms "psychological warfare" and "psy-ops" have been retired by America's top information official because he considers them "too mind-bending."

Incestuous amplification
A wartime condition that occurs when policy makers listen only to people who share their set beliefs, increasing the risk for miscalculation. See "cakewalk."



Kill box
A zone in which pilots are free to search for and attack targets at will.



Tme is rapidly running out for the Iraqi regime to disarm itself of weapons of mass destruction, as required by the United Nations Security Council. And if war comes, President Bush has made clear that it will be a war of liberation, not occupation.
--Speech by Deputy National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley
Council on Foreign Relations February 12, 2003


Military-age male
Marine term for Iraqi males between boyhood and old age—all of whom are considered suspects and thus eligible for detention.


Negative health consequences
Term used to describe illnesses linked to the smallpox vaccine, which now include three fatal heart attacks.



Operational pause
Describes troops that have stopped advancing. When reporters described the troops as getting "bogged down," it led a top British military official to complain, "This 'bogged down' is a tendentious phrase."

Operation Iraqi Freedom
Official name for the war on Iraq. Bush says his goal is to free Iraqis, not to occupy their country and seize their oil resources.


Term used to shrink bad news. For example, swarming Fedayeen are termed "pockets of resistance." Hordes of hungry people are "pockets of need."

Protective Custody
Imprisonment without charge or trial (due process of law)



Reactive Skin Decontamination Lotion, a/k/a RSDL
A Canadian product approved by the FDA, for troops to apply after a chemical attack.

New term for nation building. The U.S. plans to award $1.9 billion in reconstruction contracts, which will go exclusively to U.S. companies.

Regime change
A polite term for the overthrow of a government or sanctified assassination

Red line, a/k/a red zone
A ring around Baghdad at which U.S. troops expected to encounter the Republican Guard and their first exposure to alleged chemical weapons.

Runaway denial device:
Bomb that scatters clusters of cratering bombs over a wide area to destroy air base runaways


Shock and awe
American equivalent to the blitzkrieg, the strategy of reducing an enemy's will to fight through displays of overwhelming force

Soften up, soften
Bomb in preparation for a ground engagement


Surgical strike
Military jargon that makes a precision bombing sound like a beneficial medical procedure.


Thieves of Iraq
Term used by some Arabs to describe Bush, Tony Blair, and Condoleezza Rice, in a spoof on the Egyptian movie Thieves of Thailand.


Unlawful combatant
A U.S. alternative for the term prisoner of war, used to describe suspected militants held at
Guantanamo Bay.



Simulated drowning -- actual drowning that is interrupted




"The frightening thing about the use of euphemisms is their power to efface the memory of actual cruelties. Behind the façade of a history falsified by language, the painful particulars of war are lost."
-David Bromwich

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