August 12, 2006

Mission Postposition

Speaking of postposed adjectives, can we spare a moment for "Target America: Terror in the Sky," the running header that MSNBC chose for its coverage of the recently uncovered plot to concoct bombs out of liquids smuggled onto aircraft, the upshot of which left me with sweat beading on my forehead as I tried to sneak a tube of toothpaste through the X-Ray machine while boarding a plane on Thursday ("The only way you'll take my Crest is if you pry it from my cold, dead fingers").

That's the same header that Frontline used for its special-edition broadcast on PBS shortly after the 9/11 attacks, and that Newsweek used (albeit with an all-important colon between target and America) for its August 16, 2004 cover story on the discovery of Al Quaeda's "Pre-Election Plot" to strike America, which for a while elevated the terror alert status to "Code Orange" -- and while we're at it, there goes another one. What's with these, anyway?

The pattern originated with German operation names in the waning years of World War I, with the N + Adj. word order almost certainly borrowed from French, which since the days of Louis XIV has provided the lexical and syntactic models of military nomenclature for other European languages (think of court martial, surgeon general and the like). That formula was adopted for operation names by the English and then American military during World War II. But as Lt. Col. Gregory Sieminski noted in a 1995 article, those names didn't become familiar to the general public until some of them were declassified after the war. That's what sparked the flood of movie titles beginning with Operation (e.g., ~ Manhunt, ~ Murder, ~ Crossbow, ~ Petticoat, ~ Dumbo Drop, and of course the 2001 SpongeBob SquarePants vehicle Operation Krabby Patty), not to mention about a gazillion other movies and thrillers beginning with Destination, Assignment, Target, Objective, Mission and other words of that agitated ilk.

Over the course of time, not surprisingly, the semantics of the construction has gotten a little blurry -- even by 1966, the impossible of Mission Impossible was something other than the name of a mission or a destination. By now, in fact, the headwords in these titles are usually little more than genre classifiers that evoke the portentous echoes of past thrillers. Adjective postpositions like these are the syntax you use to promise a whale of a tale, with nail-biting tension and seat-of-your-pants action sequences, even if the spectacle is actually just a fashion reality show called Project Runway. And it can't be an accident that postmodification has become a regular feature of the banners that the cable news networks assign to every major running story, whether they're headed by mission or target or by some other word. America Rising, America on Alert, Decision 2000, Boy in the Middle (remember Elian?) all suggesting that what they're giving us is an overarching narrative, and not just one damn thing after another. Not that anybody's going out of his or her way to scare us, just so we keep tuned.

Added August 13: I discovered an earlier antecedent for the the MSNBC header in the 1989 TV doc Terrorism: Target USA, featuring the columnist Jack Anderson.

Posted by Geoff Nunberg at August 12, 2006 09:10 PM