Stop nonchalantly using the language of war

CapacityInclusivitySEO + Content Marketing

Though the world has its focus on Ukraine and two-tone flags are blooming everywhere out of solidarity and resistance, wars have been ongoing across the world for the past hundred years. With this, the language of war and military euphemisms have casually made their way into colloquial conversation. 

But this has harmful effects, and it’s time to take a second look at that. Here’s why.

The language we use matters. Even during times of war, language is carefully manipulated with euphemisms to present alternate realities. Language shapes how we think and shapes the cultures and norms that we live our lives by. The language of war used casually in non-militaristic contexts not only invokes a war-like mindset in us as we use it, but it can actively hurt those experiencing the violence of war. 

During the pandemic, we were “at war with an invisible enemy.” If you got sick, you “battled the virus” as your body “mobilized its defenses.” Intuitively, nothing is wrong here. It’s grammatically correct. But wars kill people, leave communities broken, and can cast desolation upon a land. The language of war in casual settings may seem harmless on the surface, but it still carries a violent connotation.

“Explaining and encouraging community resilience and togetherness in the face of adversity by evoking images of war conjures up distorted myths and narratives of heroic past national glory and military campaigns,” Loughborough University senior lecturer Alexandre Christoyannopoulos wrote in The Conversation.

It’s important to be aware of this. Changing your language, even the words that you think are small and don’t hold power, can have immeasurable effects. Here are nine examples of words and phrases you might be using that are worth a second thought.

1. Minefield

A minefield is a weapon and tactic used to slow enemy movement by placing random, hidden bombs across a space. The word is also commonly used to describe sticky situations or careful conversations. The next time you or someone else says that talking with a certain person is like walking through a minefield, for example, think about alternatives.

2. Casualties

This word is a synonym for deaths, especially in wartime. It’s also commonly used in business settings to describe areas of financial loss. It’s important to frame our losses in something other than the ways we speak of death and brutality in times of war.

3. Flak or Take the Flak

Flak refers to bullets shot from the ground at enemy aircraft. But taking the flak in colloquial conversation usually refers to receiving harsh criticism or feedback. It may be widely used but is far off from its actual meaning that’s rooted in war. 

4. Invisible Enemy

Language like this immediately puts you on the defensive with a war-like attitude. Invisible enemy was commonly used to describe COVID-19 during the early days of the pandemic. But in a situation like this, though we had a crisis, we weren’t trying to kill or use weapons. We were trying to heal. Reframing language and thinking of alternatives to “invisible enemy” can be key for a more productive mindset.

5. Frontline and Battlefield

The frontline leads the rest of an army across a battlefield. This is another word that was intensely used during the pandemic to praise workers, from nurses to janitors, for their continuation of labor and sacrifice without protection. Not only does this invoke a wartime mental framing, but it often obscures the truth. For example, saying those deemed essential workers were on the frontline suggests they bear the brunt of stopping the pandemic when there are important actions for everyone to take.

6. Peacekeeper

Though it’s a euphemism, this word is still military language that was created to divert attention from the realities of what any given soldier or police officer was doing. Framing someone’s actions as keeping the peace can sound convincing without further review and discovery. In reality, this language is a wartime euphemism that is seldom used for what the words actually mean.

7. Lay low

Before attacking an enemy, soldiers often lay low, or hide, to have an easier attack. Lay low is commonly used to describe not getting too involved in a situation, whether from social media or certain friends. However, this phrase gets its meaning from soldiers preparing to pounce before an attack.

8. Take no prisoners

This is an example of language that can be used jokingly but has seriously violent roots. To take no prisoners means to kill everyone. Rather than using language rooted in annihilation, look elsewhere.

9. Trenches

Being in the trenches is commonly used to describe going through a challenging time. This is a real experience that people have and not one to take lightly. Instead of describing something like being busy with office work as being in the trenches, look to lighter phrases or more accurate descriptions. 

Check if you’re using these military euphemisms haphazardly

Whole Whale created a FREE tool that combs through your content to check for inclusive language and flag your potentially harmful language. The Inclusivity Tool crawls any page on your website and does so quickly. Try out the Inclusivity Tool here!

The most effective way to learn about the language you use is through a full-site audit that looks at every page and provides a deeper understanding with the help of a professional DEI consultant