JS Tip 136: Today is Veteran’s Day

Today’s tip will be serious. Yesterday’s headlines of soldiers’ remains being dumped in a Virginia landfill occasion the seriousness.

We turn to some comments about words and soldiers by the late comedian George Carlin: 

There's a condition in combat. Most people know it by now. It occurs when a soldier's nervous system has reached the breaking point. In World War I it was called shell shock. Simple, honest, direct language. Two syllables. Shell. Shock. Almost sounds like the guns themselves. Shell Shock!

That was 1917. A generation passed. Then, during World War II, the very same combat condition was called battle fatigue. Four syllables now. It takes a little longer to say, stretches it out. The words don’t seem to hurt as much. And fatigue is a softer word than shock. Shell Shock. Battle Fatigue. The condition was being euphemized.

More time passed and we got to Korea, 1950. By that time, Madison Avenue had learned well how to manipulate the language, and the same combat condition became operational exhaustion. It had been stretched out to eight syllables. It took longer to say, so the impact was reduced, and the humanity was completely squeezed out of the term. It was now absolutely sterile: operational exhaustion. It sounded like something that might happen to your car.

And then, finally, we got to Vietnam. Given the dishonesty surrounding that war, I guess it's not surprising that, at the time, the very same condition was renamed post-traumatic stress disorder. It was still eight syllables, but a hyphen had been added, and, at last, the pain had been completely buried under psycho-jargon. Post-traumatic stress disorder.

I'd be willing to bet anything that if we'd still been calling it shell shock, some of those Vietnam veterans might have received the attentions they needed, at the time they needed it. But it didn't happen, and I'm convinced one of the reasons was that softer language we now prefer: The New Language. The language that takes the life out of life.

Next week we’ll go back to the writing and leadership and customer-service discussions. Next week we’ll be less serious.