An Etymology Lesson

by John J. Pitney, Jr.

It is one thing to plead for more civil political rhetoric, which of course would be good. It is quite another to say that we should purge words and phrases that have military origins, which would be practically impossible. Many commonplace terms started on the battlefield. “Strategy” comes from the Greek strategia, meaning “generalship.” “Leadership” has an Indo-European root meaning “to go forth, die.” “Campaign,” from the Latin campus (“field”), began as a military term for an organized struggle taking place over a distinct period. “Slogan” derives from the Scottish Gaelic sluagh (“army”) and ghairm (“cry”).

A ban on martial language would rule out many quotations from historical figures. When he accepted the 1912 presidential nomination of the Progressive Party, Theodore Roosevelt proclaimed, “We stand at Armageddon, and we battle for the Lord.” His distant cousin Franklin said in his 1933 inaugural that he assumed “unhesitatingly the leadership of this great army of our people dedicated to a disciplined attack upon our common problems.” And Lyndon Johnson declared “War on Poverty.”

Even when they’ve opposed war, political leaders have used the language of war. In his memoir of the 1972 presidential bid of George McGovern — whose main issue was Vietnam — campaign manager Gary Hart said: “The nomination campaign was for us guerrilla warfare – scattered, ragtag troops, minutemen, roving bands of citizen volunteers, the people of Russia plaguing and harassing Napoleon’s elite corps.” In his famous 2002 speech against the invasion of Iraq, Barack Obama said: “Let’s fight to wean ourselves off Middle East oil, through an energy policy that doesn’t simply serve the interests of Exxon and Mobil. Those are the battles that we need to fight. Those are the battles that we willingly join.”

John J. Pitney Jr. is the Roy P. Crocker professor of American politics at Claremont McKenna College.