Shortly after US president George W. Bush was elected in 2001, he read through a report on president Bill Clinton administration’s failure to prevent the genocide in Rwanda. At some point during this session, Bush took a pen and scrawled in the margin, “Not on my watch!”
This was a favorite phrase of Bush’s. He used it dozens of times (paywall), and his fondness for the phrase helped popularized it in the modern American lexicon—today you see it everywhere from panels on human trafficking to Pokémon and World of Warcraft. But Bush did not invent the phrase of course; it’s actually a military term referencing the Navy’s nautical system of watches, whereby a watch refers to a period spent on duty. “Not on my watch” therefore most accurately means “not when I’m in charge,” which is unfortunate, given that the single most calamitous event to befall America in the past 50 years happened very much on Bush’s watch.
America is particularly fond of its military jargon. Software isn’t vital—it’s “mission critical.” You don’t keep an eye out for nefarious types sneaking up behind you—you “watch your six.” Some phrases have become so common that their military origin is largely forgotten: “ASAP,” “on standby,” and “good to go” are all common idioms that can be traced back to the armed forces.
More than just a linguistic quirk, however, the militarization of language reflects the militarization of society; it normalizes the military as a part of everyday life. Given that America has the world’s second-largest standing army, it makes sense that its military terminology is particularly pervasive. There are just more service members and ex-service members incorporating their language into everyday speech than in other countries. (China, which is home to the world’s largest army, is also extremely fond of military slang, I’ve been told by friends living there.)
So why is military speech so laden with metaphor floral jargon in spite of its violent beginnings? “Language flowers during wartime because any time a group of people is tightly organized into one unified effort over a long period of time, they develop an insiders’ language,” Grant Barrett, a lexicographer, linguist, and host of the public radio show A Way with Words, explains. “Some of it is inside jokes. Some of it is short ways of expressing long ideas (abbreviations, contractions, clippings, etc.). Some of it is simply the language they need for the tasks, tasks which may not be common outside of their group. Some of it is the kind of slang you come up with when you hate what you’re doing but have to do it anyway: gallows humor, dark jokes, stuff that pushes back against authority.”
The words that tend to cross over into common usage, he explains, are those whose meanings have utility outside of their strict military definition. “The words that tend to travel outside of military circles tend to be those that can be generalized to broader usage and which fill a lexical gap—a hole in the language that needs filling,” he says. “For example, we don’t have any need for ‘mickey’—meaning ‘a bomb sight’—outside of war use, but ‘milk run’ from the same war and ‘a routine flight or trip’ did fill a need and are now parts of standard English.”
Some linguists argue that our language doesn’t only reflect our view of the world—it shapes it. Linguistic philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein famously declared, “The limits of my language mean the limits of my world.” In the early 20th century, this idea was developed into what became known as the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis, named after its two most prominent proponents.
The hypothesis holds that human beings, in Edward Sapir’s words, “are very much at the mercy of the particular language which has become the medium of expression for their society… The fact of the matter is that the ‘real world’ is to a large extent unconsciously built up on the language habits of the group.” While today’s linguists generally reject linguistic determinism—the idea that language is solely responsible for determining the way we think—the idea that language has at least a measurable influence on the formation of thought is relatively well-supported.
So does the militarization of American language perhaps contribute to America’s general fondness for war? This is a difficult theory to prove. “My first instinct is that the link between military terms in culture at large and the militarization of society is a conjectural link, not a scientific one,” says social semiotician Jaime Hosticka. “And I think any semiotician would say the same.” It’s difficult to draw a causative link between the prevalence of language and the prevalence of the culture that created that language. But the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis that language at least influences people’s perception of the military is worth considering.
Either way, there’s something pernicious about America’s embrace of military culture. The US’s perpetual state of militarization is largely without historical precedent. Some argue that America has been at war for around 93% of its existence, and while that statistic depends on a rather generous definition of “at war,” the implication is still clear: America spends a lot of time and money sending its military somewhere or other.
There’s also a definite interplay between America’s military and America’s culture. The popular first-person shooter Call of Duty may well double as an army recruitment tool. America’s film industry produces plenty of war movies, and some of those films are co-produced by… America’s military. And, whether or not it’s actively involved in the production of a film, the military is extremely keen to make sure it’s shown in a favorable light by Hollywood.
With all this in mind, it’s worth considering how the casual use of military terminology in everyday speech is a way to integrate America’s military into the cultural subconscious. Think on that next time someone defiantly declares, “Not on my watch!”