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Why the Surge in Using 'Surge' for Troop Levels?

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Why the Surge in Using 'Surge' for Troop Levels?


Why the Surge in Using 'Surge' for Troop Levels?

Why the Surge in Using 'Surge' for Troop Levels?

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  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
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Robert Siegel explores the meaning of the word "surge" as applied to increased U.S. troop strength in Iraq. Guy Raz says that Pentagon officials don't use the term and consider it a media creation. Linguist Deborah Tannen says "surge" might be in use because it has positive connotations, and sounds a little like the word "insurgent."


In the making of policy, military strategy and newspaper headlines, things get named. The troop increase that President Bush is expected to announce on Wednesday has informally been christened over the past several weeks.

Unidentified Announcer #1: They're calling it surge and accelerate.

Unidentified Announcer #2: The president asks for a surge in troops.

Unidentified Announcer #3: And a strong advocate of the surge, Retired General..

SIEGEL: In 2005, if you heard us talking about a surge it was probably the storm surge that broke the flood walls of New Orleans. Last year, it might have been the surging Detroit Tigers. It could be a surge protector to plug your computer into. But in Washington this month, say surge and we assume you're talking about troop strength in Iraq.

Unidentified Man #1: This surge is a bad idea.

Unidentified Man #2: Those who would suggest that we can surge an operation for three to six months makes no military sense to me whatsoever.

Unidentified Woman #1: My support for any surge in troops would be dependent on the specificity in which it is delivered.

SIEGEL: A surge according to Merriam-Webster is a swelling, rolling or a sweeping forward, like that of a wave or series of waves. The Oxford English Dictionary throws in impetuous onset or agitated movement and a rapid increase in price, activity, et cetera, especially over a short period.

Politicians and some armchair generals use the word surge, but one place you evidently don't hear it is at the Pentagon. Our reporter Guy Raz covers the Defense Department. Guy, they don't say surge in the Pentagon briefings?

GUY RAZ: No, they don't. In fact, they see the term surge as kind of a media word. They would talk about leveling out the forces or increasing end strength, but the word surge simply is not used there.

SIEGEL: A surge, like a storm surge, comes and goes. Is the Pentagon talking about a very brief increase in the number of troops in Iraq that will then subside very shortly after that?

RAZ: Well, what they're talking about when we think about surge and they're trying to explain that it's not a surge, they're actually talking about what will be a long-term increase in the overall number of forces in Iraq.

SIEGEL: And in background briefings do you hear the word surge?

RAZ: Never.

SIEGEL: Never. Guy Raz, thank you.

RAZ: Thank you.

SIEGEL: That's NPR's Guy Raz, who covers the Pentagon. So what's in a name? What do people hear when they hear surge instead of perhaps the more prosaic increase or troop buildup?

We've asked linguist Deborah Tannen. Deborah Tannen, what do you think is implied by the use of the word surge?

Professor DEBORAH TANNEN (Linguistics, Georgetown University): The associations with the word surge are more positive and less military. You think of a power surge. A surge of energy. Things that in your life you would be happy to have, well unless the power surge destroyed your computer. But it is fleeting. It's like a wave that crests and then recedes.

So these are all associations that would be more favorable then, for example, troop buildup. The last thing people want is to be reminded that the troops are being sent in rather than being brought home. So when you think of a surge of energy, you think of something benign. It doesn't give you an image of explosions, of limbs being blown off, all those associations with the military that they would want to avoid.

SIEGEL: So surge you think perhaps has caught on with those people who favor it because, like a surge of pride, it's something favorable, some image that we feel good about?

Prof. TANNEN: Yes, and you know there's another reason, too. In linguistics we talk about lexical touch offs. You often will use a word that is similar to a word you've heard other people use quite recently. And we've heard so much about the insurgency; I think that also makes the word surge feel comfortable in this context.

SIEGEL: Insurgents I guess are by definition surging.

Prof. TANNEN: Yeah. But also it's something that you'll want to match. We want to get rid of those insurgents. On NPR I heard someone say, if we could just get rid of those darn insurgents. So it might feel like our surge is going to overcome their surge, the insurgents'.

SIEGEL: Well, Deborah Tannen, thank you very much for talking with us.

Prof. TANNEN: Good talking to you.

SIEGEL: That's Deborah Tannen, who's a professor of linguistics at Georgetown University, talking with us about the recent surge in the use of the word surge to describe an increase of U.S. forces in Iraq.

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