On this day in 1975, the last American soldiers left Vietnam, ending a ten-year period in which the United States dropped more bombs than during all of World War II. The many soldiers who fought in Vietnam returned with both metals and scars, but they also returned with new words that reflected their intense experience in Southeast Asia.
In the book I Hear America Talking, Stuart Berg Flexner defines some of the key terms that came out of the Vietnam War:
Charlie: The term Viet Cong (short for Vietnamese Communist) was shortened by soldiers to V.C. Since the international phonetic alphabet used for communication designated the letter C as Charlie, and V for Victor, the enemy from North Vietnam was frequently designated Charlie.
Click: Military term for kilometer, possibly reflecting the sound of the letter K, the abbreviation for kilometer, or the clicking of a gun sight being adjusted for distance.
Defoliate: The spraying of chemicals or the use of bombs on enemy territory to destroy trees or crops, depriving the enemy of concealment or food.
Domino Theory: The belief that if Vietnam fell to the Communists, its neighbors in Southeast Asia would fall one by one, as in a row of dominoes.
Escalation: As the U.S. presence in Vietnam grew under the leadership of President Johnson, this term was used to describe the increase in troop levels. It is derived from escalator, a trademark name for a “moving staircase.”
Firefight: This term to describe a short engagement replaced the common word skirmish.
Fragging: This term is derived from a commonly used weapon of the war, the fragmentation grenade. It became a verb to describe the killing of an officer by use of a grenade or any other means.
Just as the Vietnam War added new words to the English lexicon, it also added new allusions — indirect references to people, places, and events from Vietnam that entered the cultural consciousness. Today, for example, when we hear or read the names Westmoreland, Viet Cong, Khe Sanh, the Tet Offensive, or the Ho Chi Minh Trail, it is hard not to think of the war in Vietnam.
In fact, the long history of warfare has added a huge stock of cultural references to the language. For example, when we read Carl Sandburg’s short poem “Grass,” we understand it is a war poem, not because it mentions war, soldiers, or fighting explicitly, but because the poem makes several allusions to battlefields around the world where soldiers fought and died:
Pile the bodies high at Austerlitz and Waterloo.
Shovel them under and let me work—
I am the grass; I cover all.
And pile them high at Gettysburg
And pile them high at Ypres and Verdun.
Shovel them under and let me work.
Two years, ten years, and passengers ask the conductor:
What place is this?
Where are we now?
Today’s Challenge: “I Love the Smell of Allusions in the Morning”
What are some examples of allusions that evoke people, places, and events from military history? Brainstorm some proper nouns that evoke specific people, places, or events from the history of warfare. Select three proper nouns, research them, and write a brief report that explains the backstory of how each proper noun fits into the timeline of the history of warfare.
The following are some examples of allusions you might research:
Alamo, Achilles, Appomattox, Auschwitz, The Bastille, The Battle of the Bulge, Catch-22, The Cold War, The Cuban Missile Crisis, D-Day, Dunkirk, The Charge of the Light Brigade, Eisenhower, Fort Sumter, The Geneva Convention, The Gettysburg Address, The G.I. Bill, Grant, Hannibal, Hiroshima, Lexington and Concord, Marathon, Minutemen, NATO, Odysseus, Patton, Rough Riders, Stalin, Tripoli, Thucydides, U-boats, V-J Day, Wounded Knee, Yankee Doodle
(Common Core Writing 2 – Expository)
Quotation of the Day: A language is a dialect with an army and a navy. -Max Weinreich
1- Flexner, Stuart Berg. I Hear America Talking.