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Strictly Speaking

Toxic Usage: Poisoned Expression


Here’s another legitimate, specific and limiting word that has been hijacked into misuse, simply because it is so short, punchy and evokes immediate fear and dread in listeners. Since news programs thrive on creating anxiety, they are unlikely to be scolded into correction, even when they are dead wrong. Misuse makes them wrong, and many toxins will make them dead. But a toxin is a poison that is evolved by natural selection in certain predators (snakes, scorpions, wasps, bees, ants, fish, lizards and spiders, plants, bushes, fruits and mushrooms) with one of two purposes: (1) either to incapacitate its prey, or (2) to make it inedible to animals inclined to prey on, and eat, it. If the substance, like phosgene gas, has not evolved by natural selection, it is not a toxin, and therefore cannot, by definition, be toxic. It can be poisonous, deadly, lethal and any number of other fairly applicable adjectives

But toxic?

Not on your life. In terms of communicating vital information, the narrowest and most exact application of a word is the most useful in evoking a correct meaning, and in seeking the appropriate remedy to a problem.

In writing contracts, lawyers use exact, commonly understood words to create a set of agreements between parties, one that the courts can easily interpret and on which they can consistently rule. In law, at least, a word cannot be claimed to mean one thing to one party and another to another party. If you’re puzzled as to what use should be applied where toxin does not, it’s poison.  Read More 
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Use Words Exactly to Avoid Confusion


Tarmac is short for Tarmacadam, a road surfacing material patented by Edgar P. Hooley in 1901. It is a perfectly legitimate word based on asphalt, the highest boiling point and least volatile mixture remaining after oil is distilled to remove the lower boiling point fractions. Straight off the first fraction from the well, oil is a mixture of naturally occurring organic compounds from methane to polynuclear aromatics.

As a driving surface for motor vehicles, tarmac is usually adequate, and served adequately for landing light planes, even the smaller, early commercial passenger aircraft. But tarmac is too soft to support the landing of larger commercial and military aircraft. The word itself defines when it (the word, not the material) should (and should not) be applied.
When the surface is tar + macadam, it is tarmac. When the road surface is sand and aggregated calcium silicate, it is concrete.

Modern runaways and taxiing areas are exclusively concrete. Because they are not as soft as their predecessor, tarmac, they are called hardstands.

Strictly speaking, no major airport in the world has landed or taxiied an aircraft on a tarmac surface in the last sixty-five years. Yet reporters are loathe to abandon a word that most listeners associate, generically, with a landing surface. As historian Will Durant once quipped, “Tradition sanctifies absurdity.”

If you want to make yourself some easy money, the next time you find yourself awaiting a flight, bet the passenger next to you than no flight will touch tarmac at this airport in the next five hours. They will check the descent paths, see an incoming 747 and say, “You’re on.” As soon as the plane hits the hardstands, collect your bet.

Your claim is based on a unarguably valid point. Heavy aircraft would sink into tarmac up to the engines. And when fire erupts from jet fuel, tarmac has the additional inconvenience of burning. Because it is already oxidized, the concrete of hardstands does not.  Read More 
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A Requiem for Iraq


To any thinking person with a full grasp of the relevance of choices to consequences, the ongoing struggle in Iraq was cast the moment that George W. Bush ordered that nation invaded in 2003. While he may have imagined an American satrapy that would last a thousand years, the accomplishment of this mission was far less possible than had been an American victory in Vietnam, and for similar reasons.
Having been involved in nuclear nonproliferation for fifteen years at the Department of Energy, post-2003 I collected on a lot of bets that there were no nuclear weapons in Iraq. In order for a national nuclear weapons program to exist, a vast series of large, interconnected facilities need to exist. These include an isotopic separation facility for enriching uranium, a nuclear production reactor, a nuclear reprocessing plant, a warhead fabrication facility, a facility for tipping missiles with warheads, and a waste disposal site or repository, and a transportation system connecting these facilities and their product to launch sites. It is impossible to construct such a network without detection. Since Operation Desert Storm, high resolution variable angle satellite imagery monitoring Iraq’s no-fly zone had collected, analyzed and archived photographs continuously, including all construction activity in or around Baghdad. This surveillance process is the technological escalation of the less sophisticated technique of U-2 photographs used by President John F. Kennedy when he presented his case for Soviet nuclear weapons in Cuba to the American people in 1962, opening with “We have evidence...” By starkest contrast, Bush, Cheney and Rumsfeld said, “We know.” But how did they know, and where was the evidence?
In addition to satellite photo surveillance, U.S. intelligence agencies track shipments of materials required to build and operate these facilities, down to specific machinery, chemical feedstocks and the smallest parts. The globally destabilizing commercialization of nuclear technologies has been led by a Pakistani, A. Q. Khan, a citizen of one of our putative allies. From Kahn Iran acquired the essentials for its uranium enrichment program. North Korea specializes in selling delivery vehicles, rockets with increasing range.
On the face of it, the Bush policy of protecting the United States against adversaries with nuclear weapons is fundamentally sound. But if the threats of 2003 had been assessed objectively on a global scale, they would have stacked up in this order: (1) North Korea, with both the capability and will to launch a strike; (2) Pakistan, because it allows the proliferation of nuclear technologies internationally, (3) Iran, a sponsor of terrorism, because it is an avowed enemy of the United States, and had been courting Soviet nuclear scientists since the mid-1980s.
The evidence for a real, growing nuclear threat existed in all three of these nations. Since the Clinton era, satellite photos the North Korean production reactor have existed and been published. The records of shipments by A. Q. Kahn have been detected and followed, sometimes with interception of packages to verify contents. Pakistan’s possession of nuclear arms, and refusal to sign the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty, have defined its position. Satellite photography of the emerging underground gaseous diffusion facility in Iran confirmed their involvement, and clinched the first step required toward a national nuclear weapons program.
No counterpart of this evidence ever existed in Iraq. If it had, then Bush could have presented it, as did JFK in 1962. It didn’t exist because there not only were no nuclear weapons in Iraq, there was not even groundbreaking on any of the several facilities required to support such a program.
The CIA’s George Tenet’s speculative “intelligence” identification of weapons sites turned out to be a fantasy. None of nearly 400 weapons sites pegged in aerial photographs had been confirmed on the ground. National Security Advisor Steven Hadley’s claim of uranium shipments from Nigeria, inserted into Bush’s State of the Union speech, was less than a rumor. None of the administration’s subsequent tap dancing regarding freeing the Iraqi people fell within the original justification of protecting the United States from a nuclear threat. Even if, as Bush claimed, Saddam Hussein was a “bad” man, it would be necessary to determine who was the world’s “worst” man in order to justify military action. And by 2003, most Americans knew who topped that list: Osama Bin Laden. So strongly did Americans believe this that even in 2008, a campaign promise to bring Bin Laden to justice figured in Barack Obama’s election.
In late 2002, staff from the U.S. Department of State met secretly at the Japanese Embassy with White House staff and Mossad, Israeli’s intelligence agency, and got this advice: “Don’t invade Iraq. Iraq is not the problem; Iran is.” Former Deputy Director of the CIA Bobby Inman called the Mossad, “The best informed intelligence source on details relating to their own security.” And what could be more threatening to Israeli security than an enemy with nuclear weapons, and one that had previously rained Scud missiles on them in Operation Desert Storm. Beyond that, Israel had previously demonstrated its ability thwart any Iraqi program in nuclear weapons when its bombers destroyed the Osirak nuclear reactor outside Baghdad in 1983.
Despite the Bush claim that Saddam Hussein was behind the 9/11 attacks, no reliable evidence supported this claim. Not one Iraqi national was among the suicide pilots flying on that day. Nor was it remotely plausible to imagine a murderous megalomaniacal secular despot like Saddam supporting a revolutionary theocratic zealot like Osama Bin Laden. These are the reason that George W. Bush could not enlist the Arab coalition partners that his father had in 1991, and the reason that other nations who fought against Saddam’s internationally illegal invasion of Kuwait, would not become one of the offending nations in a U.S. attack on Iraq.
The unprovoked and unjustified invasion of Iraq in 2003 sparked a panIslamic rage for jihad against the invaders that was impossible without it. Al Qaeda, falsely claimed as linked to Saddam Hussein before the invasion, gained a foothold in Iraq by enlisting a Koranic obligation. Worldwide, Muslims were summoned to join the fray against the imperialist American invaders. Even George W. Bush admitted that the invaders were occupiers, and that he wouldn’t want to be occupied either. As Mohandas Gandhi said, “There is no nation that would rather not be ruled by its own people, however poorly, than by an occupying force, however well.”
I have been fortunate in working with, and living next to, an Iraqi and an Iranian, the latter educated in Paris and now living in France. Both knew what Bush did not: that in the post-colonial borders arbitrarily assigned by the departing European powers, only a strong man could hold together the polyglots of cultures, tribes, ethnic and religious groups confined by nonsensical lines on a map that was not of their own making. Despite Bush’s statement in the second presidential debate against Al Gore than no one should invade a nation without a withdrawal plan, no one in the administration ever asked, “After Saddam, then what?”
The glib answer was “a model for democracy in the Middle East.” But a new governmental system must be fought for an chosen by the people living within it. This is how the United States was founded, with its citizen warriors risking their “lives, liberties and property” in the venture. Even if democracy had been imposed in Iraq, the outcome of elections would need to be a reflection of the cultures, peoples and religions indigenous to the nation. When democracy revolutionized Egypt after that Arab Spring, the elected leadership looked nothing like Anwar Sadat’s. It was Islamic and theocratic, a reflection of the voters. Nor was that democracy durable. It was fragile enough to be ousted by its own military.
As historian Will Durant concluded, a nation or people should be free to choose its own governance, according to the abilities of that government to meet its basic needs. Sometimes these needs are as basic as avoiding starvation. The next government for them does not need to be perfect. It simply needs to be better.
Once a government is imposed, as it was in Iraq, its people need a willingness to protect that form of government or risk being associated as collaborators with an occupying force. So Operation Iraqi Freedom was doomed from the planning stage, because Iraq’s simmering sectarian strife is more acrimonious than what afflicted Northern Ireland. In Northern Ireland, they all worshipped the same God and Savior. In Iraq, it is the same Allah, seen through different hermeneutics. And when a people believe that God has called them to the slaughter, absent a reconciling agreement, the bloodshed will end only with the extermination of one side or the other. The carnage in Norther Ireland ended not by imposition of military force, but by negotiation at a table, with both parties included and neither party coerced.
In Iraq, all the King’s horses and all the King’s men can never restore a regime that was dependent on America to fight their adversaries. It was an entirely misguided – doomed and hopeless – venture, as are often ventures built entirely on lies, in the service of greed.
Returning to our priority list of potential enemies of American security on the eve of the second invasion of Iraq, we have to assess what the worst threats, North Korea, Pakistan and Iran, had to offer in oil, compared to Iraq. In two cases, nothing, in the third, not as much. This motivation – an oil-rich Middle Eastern American colony – has been an open Washington insider secret for over forty years. Although I worked with a Q clearance – top secret national security information – I did not need it to hear what others were discussing with casual blandishments.
In reaction to the OPEC oil embargo of 1974, Richard Nixon had drafted a secret plan to invade Iraq, which became known to a Washington Star reporter, James Grady. If Watergate had not erupted as it did, Grady’s story would have taken center stage. Instead, he fictionalized it in a novel, Six Days of the Condor. This became a film with Robert Redford, Three Days of the Condor. The plot closely resembles Operation Iraqi Freedom. The real-life directors were two oil men, and the truth finally revealed by Bush’s deputy national security advisor for Iraq and Afghanistan, Meghan O’Sullivan on September 11, 2011. Her take: the 2003 invasion of Iraq may be turning out better than opponents thought, and so a substantial U.S. military presence should remain there, because the Zubair oil field in Iraq would help the world avert an energy crisis. And because Halliburton, already fifteen billion dollars richer as the sole source support services contractor in Iraq, could make even more money.
In the retrospect of realpolitik and that history that George W. Bush loved quoting, given the motives and lies and revisions behind the invasion and occupation, it would be a moral outrage if any nation forcefully occupied another merely to fuel their own economy. Yet this is what a 2005 CIA report from that administration openly predicted: Most wars in the twenty-first century will be resource wars. Operation Iraqi Freedom was the first, a prototype. But, as war scholar Thomas B. Allen points out, part of a pattern. The rationale was that the stronger the American military, the better position it would have to dominate world commerce. After thirty years of military service and two medals of honor, Marine General Smedley D. Butler agreed, “For thirty years I was a thug for capitalism.” The U.S. first troops on the ground in Iraq in 2003 secured the headquarters of the oil ministry and flooded into to protect the oil fields. Not even a token pursuit of weapons of mass destruction occurred for weeks. For good reason. You don’t waste time looking for what you know isn’t there.
With those precious Zubair oil fields that Meghan O’Sullivan posited would avert a global energy crisis beyond U.S. influence, the fiasco of Operation Iraqi Freedom seems complete. And by avoiding dealing with the greater threats to U.S. security in 2003, we now have a more capable North Korea threatening an EMP event or full strike on Pearl Harbor, home base of the Seventh Fleet. We have Iran, ignored in 2003, on the brink of achieving nuclear weaponry that Iraq lacked. And we have a grand laissez faire capitalist, A. Q. Khan, happily selling components for nuclear reactors to anyone who has a laptop and off-shore bank account. Mission Accomplished. Read More 
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Word Origins: When things aren't what they're called.


The most common use of this word refers to an armored assault vehicle driven by tracks and topped by a rotating gun turret. Almost no one remembers that the application of the word was the British code applied to a machine that appeared capable of delivering potable, nonpoisoned water to the trenches in World War I. But its intent was never that. It was designed and operated as a war machine to break the deadlock and futility of deadlocked front lines, an indestructible, terrifying vehicle with murderous firepower, and also a shield for advancing infantry.

Certain vestiges of the original meaning of tank as a reservoir of water remain. During the 1950s, nylon racing suits used by swimmers were called tank suits. Eventually, the reference of tank to a form containing water became so rare that elevated municipal water tanks became referred to as water towers, although the contained water is in a tank at the top.

Some believe that getting tanked is being so drunk that it seems a tank has run over them. More likely, if any relationship to tanks exist, it's probably because with car's we "fill up the tank." With beer. Which is served in tankards. Least desirable is a tank driver who's tanked.

Few today even question why it is that we refer to mechanized war machine as a tank. This may be taken, and fairly, as an index of indifference, to a lack in curiosity in the past. Perhaps if the code name for the war machine under development had been eggplant, people would be more puzzled as to how we reached the Abrams M-1 Eggplant. Or perhaps no one would have found this absurd incongruity hard to swallow. Read More 
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Saying What You Mean


A word related to another by identity, or near identity. Therefore synonyms are erythrocytes in the life blood of a thesaurus. Ostensibly an inevitability of the diversity in the root languages of origin, the belief in modular identities can also become limiting, in suggesting that one word is as good as, or interchangeable with another. Almost never is this the case. Almost always, even words with convergent denotations have quite distinct connotations, and connotations are essential in calculating the way that a word will be heard and processed. A good example would be “policeman,” and “cop.” Read More 
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Instant Neologisms


The first artificial satellite launched by the Soviet Union in 1957. Sputnik initiated both the space race, accelerated the arms race, and became, overnight, a household English word that brought fear of Russian missile attack. Since this orbiting device nearly turned the Cold War hot and ended civilization, it might be the kind of trivia that we are inclined to remember. Here’s a bit of fun. If you’re between twenty and thirty years of age, place a bet with a friend before you arrive at a party. Bet him or her ten cents per minute for every minute of ersatz conversation that the word Sputnik will not be spoken. Its absence will be strange for a mere word once so frightful that it nearly destroyed everything. Read More 
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Linguistic Lithmus Tests

So like not me

Here's an expression as common as dirty, and about as helpful to meaning. It is said with the hope that those hearing it will automatically know what it is that pleases or displeases the speaker. Knowing exactly what the problem is requires Spock's Vulvcan mind meld.

It would be vastly more communicative if the speaker simply said, "I've never liked chartreuse or sweet drinks, so why would I buy a type of Gatorade that is both?" The problem a speaker has can be more clearly known by the use of a number of words like crass, tasteless, insensitive, rude, inappropriate or grotesque. Something that gives listeners a fair chance at grasping the objection immediately and specifically, or at least getting close.

The most troubling aspect of the proliferation of expressions like "So like not me," is that it is definitively self-referential. It expects everyone else to accept that the speaker is ultimately more deserving of understanding and sympathy than anyone else. There is a DSM code for self-referential people. Their chief characteristic is that they cannot see the world from other than their own preferences.

Better by far might be, for example, "John and I just don't have the same taste in art." This allows John his preferences and the speaker hers, projecting a mature recognition that people can differ, and that the speaker's need to have all conduct and expression relate to their standards is ego-maniacal intolerance. Read More 
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means a brief summary of the plot of a novel. That's it. Only this in its original detonation. This gave the word a certain valence in publishing, where a professional could be gleaned from an amateur by understanding what, exactly, an editor was requesting.

In the stampede to achieve authority and conviction from ignorance, scenario has been gobbled up and regurgitated with such predictable regularity that it is now as obligatory as toilet paper, and often used for the same purpose.

Instead of plugging in scenario, one could just as well say, "Under this set of circumstances," and exhibit that he or she knew how to guide a discussion without resorting to shopworn buzzwords in pursuit of conformity. Read More 
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In scientific parlance, research came into usage to denote a process of structured inquiry involving experiments designed to test a hypothesis as part of a system designed to admit certain possibilities for further (not farther) consideration as theories, and in which theories remain until better theories appear, often as a result of new observations not embraced by existing theories.

In academics a distinction exists between a literature search, which means looking up what already exists in the scientific literature, and research. A literature search cites what is presumed to be currently known; research deals with what is not yet known, but which the researcher hopes that experiments will reveal. In short, research produces previously unknown data, facts or insights into the natural world.

Applying this narrow definition, the broader use of the word, as in research on the internet, attempts to dignify a process as more involved or structured or informative than the origin sense of the word intended. This is not a matter of evolution of language, but of devaluation of a rigorous process by extending the use to a highly informal one.

As regards research on the internet, unless restricted to peer-reviewed journals, the the process suffers from inclusion of material that is more often wrong than it is correct, and inclines toward separating the putative “researcher” from his or her hard-earned dollar.

At issue is the specificity of a word that is being stretched so that everyone with a computer can pretend to be a Ph.D. Even scholarly studies in comparative literature and history can’t be called research if the sources they turn up, however rare or forgotten or concealed, are already in existence at the time their search begins. Even so there are the matters of validation and reproducibility at issue with all matters where personal records, not instrumental readings, are cited.

The phenomenon in usage may be general. If another word were invented that were more demanding and specific and factual than the word research denotes or connotes, there would certainly be a word-grab to glom onto and deploy it in everyone’s arsenal of arguments, aiming, as the common australism puts it, to disclose, “the true facts.” Read More 
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Precipitating Confusion


Rain, meaning to precipitate the liquid state of water, is not the same as reign, meaning to preside over and govern a kingdom, although both words can be used either in the form of a noun or a verb. If spelled properly and used as properly in sentences, neither a spell checker nor a grammar checking program will inform the writer that the wrong word has been used.

This provides an example of a general problem, where a word has been heard and is put down in writing according to the most familiar spelling, without checking for meaning(s). Currently it happens even in leading newspapers, and the results range – when read as presented – from the humorous to the incomprehensible.

With homonyms, the listener does not know whether the speaker can spell the word, because it sounds identical in both forms. In novels and plays, but not often movies, wordplay can intentionally add to the complexity, confusion or humor, and savvy audiences pick up on this immediately. But when these mistakes appear in formal, business or diplomatic writing, alert readers may justifiably scratch the author off their list of permitted e mail senders. Read More 
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