December 28, 2006

Surging vocabulary

Geoff Nunberg is right to point out the semantic novelty of surge in the sense of "a prolonged deployment of additional troops in Iraq," as the Bush administration and others have used the term in recent weeks. But there's another innovative aspect of surge as it has been deployed (so to speak) in the political discourse surrounding the war in Iraq since the midterm elections. It's not just the noun form of surge that's getting reshaped — the verb is getting a makeover too.

In an op-ed piece in the Wall St. Journal on Nov. 10, former CIA analyst Reuel Marc Gerecht pessimistically previewed the forthcoming release of the Iraq Study Group's final report. (Gerecht was one of the few neoconservative voices on the ISG's panel of experts.) Gerecht's widely quoted assessment went as follows:

We either declare defeat and withdraw completely tout de suite, or we surge troops into Baghdad and fight. The ISG will surely try to find some middle ground between these positions, which, of course, doesn't exist.

A week later, Tim Harper wrote in the Toronto Star (abstract here, full text here) about the "new buzzword" in U.S. policy in Iraq: "a so-called surge, in one last bid to win a war that looks more and more unwinnable." (In the past I've criticized Harper's inaccurate claims about another putative military buzzword: "transfer tubes," supposedly a euphemism for "body bags." But in this case his reporting is right on the money.) In exploring the talk of a possible "surge" of troop levels in Iraq, Harper quotes Sen. John Cornyn (R-Tex.) in a Fox News interview:

I've resisted the call by Senator McCain and some others that we needed to surge troops on a temporary basis, but, you know, I'm beginning to think that he's got a point.

Since then, there's been plenty of talk about plans to "surge troops" (or "troop levels") in Iraq. This transitive usage of surge, meaning 'to introduce (something, esp., troops) quickly, forcefully, and in large numbers (into a region),' has yet to be recorded by the major English dictionaries. The OED lists a poetic transitive sense, meaning "to cause to move in, or as in, swelling waves or billows; to drive with waves," as in this couplet from James Lowell's "A Parable, 'Said Christ Our Lord'" (1873):

Great organs surged through arches dim
Their jubilant floods in praise of him.

In Lowell's verse, organs are "surging" metaphorical floods of praise for Jesus, which only vaguely resembles current usage, in which the administration hopes to "surge" floods of soldiers into Iraq to rebuff insurgents. (Is there some sort of cross-pollination between surging and insurgency going on here?) Other than the 'drive with waves' poeticism, the only transitive usage noted by the OED and other dictionaries is a specialized nautical sense, 'to let go or slacken (a rope or cable) gradually,' which doesn't seem related at all.

The military sense of transitive surge may be new to most readers (as it was to me), but it turns out it's been kicking around defense circles since the '90s. The earliest relevant citation I've found so far is a Sep. 7, 1993 article from Defense Daily, referring to ships that would "surge troops and equipment to crisis areas." And here is a selection of subsequent cites, mostly from military brass and civilian officials:

NATO has said that it will embrace these countries through interoperability, as they upgrade their forces they will make sure that they -- the plug goes into the West wall rather than the East wall -- and through reinforcement; that is, the ability to surge troops into an area of trouble, as opposed to permanently stationing large numbers of combat forces in these new countries. (Briefing by National Security Advisor Sandy Berger, May 31, 1997)

Jackson was worried Slobodan Milosevic might try to retaliate against Macedonia after NATO began its bombing campaign by surging troops across the border. (USA Today, Apr. 2, 1999)

The bases will be used as training grounds for U.S. forces on six-month rotations, hubs for intelligence gathering, and marshaling yards when the Pentagon needs to "surge" troops to a specific region. (U.S. News & World Report, Oct. 6, 2003)

Now, there is no question that there's parts of Iraq that we need to surge troops into, and that there's parts of Iraq that may not need the number of troops that at earlier times were in there. (Testimony by Gen. Peter J. Schoomaker, Senate Armed Services Committee, Nov. 19, 2003)

Abizaid asked his staff for options for surging troops to Iraq last week as violence in the Sunni triangle stepped up. (UPI, Apr. 12, 2004)

We might need to surge troops in for short periods and to bring them out again to achieve an effect. (Testimony by Maj. Gen. Freddie Viggers, House Armed Services Committee, May 17, 2004)

For example, during the March riots in Kosovo, NATO was able to surge an additional 3000 troops within a few days, the first arriving in less than 24 hours. (Testimony by Acting Assistant Secretary of Defense Mira Ricardel, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, July 14, 2004)

I think there's enough troops right now to do the job. And what they'll do is, they'll surge troops on a temporary basis, Americans, if there's not enough Iraqis trained to cover the elections. (CNN interview with Brig. Gen. David Grange, Sep. 25, 2004)

The United States can always surge troops for specific needs by altering rotation rates or using the theater reserve. (Testimony by Dr. Anthony H. Cordesman, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, July 18, 2005)

We can surge one, two, three brigades for the election. We will probably do that. (Testimony by Gen. Barry R. McCaffrey, Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, July 18, 2005)

If we had to surge troops, we could. (Meet The Press interview with Gen. Montgomery Meigs, Aug. 28, 2005)

So if you have in today's world 18 to 20 brigade combat teams deployed, we can surge, with the army force generation model, another 18 to 20 brigade combat teams. (AFP interview with Army Secretary Francis Harvey, Jan. 18, 2006)

It's been a gradual buildup over the years, but the floodgates have officially opened for the new sense of surge. It might even be a good contender for Word of the Year, though a novel transitive usage of a preexisting verb doesn't exactly have the same P.R. magic as, say, truthiness.

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at December 28, 2006 01:06 AM