February 19, 2007

The (so-called) Gulf and (so-called) friendly fire

Earlier today Sally Thomason entitled a Language Log post, "Another view of Americans & Arabic in the Gulf." Will Language Log Plaza now face a worldwide boycott over an omitted word?

Let me explain. In today's Guardian, reader's editor Ian Mayes reports the following:

An email I received a few days ago read: "Just so you know, the Iranian community worldwide is about to boycott your newspaper solely because you have decided arbitrarily to use the term 'the Gulf' in place of 'the Persian Gulf' in your articles."

Mayes points to the Guardian's style guide, which explicitly advises, "The Gulf - not the Persian or Arabian Gulf." The thinking here is that usage of "the Gulf" represents a neutral standpoint, staying aloof from the nomenclatural battles between Iranians and Arabs. Mayes writes:

The preference for calling it "the Gulf" is not something that the Guardian has suddenly or arbitrarily introduced. It dates from at least the time of the first Gulf war, which we have referred to as "the Persian Gulf war" at least nine times in the past six years. On even rarer occasions we have referred to "the Persian Gulf states", which for some is also a provocative formation. To the Arab states in the Gulf it is the Arabian Gulf.
A Guardian journalist who was foreign editor for part of the 1990s promoted the term "the Gulf" on his pages because of its neutrality, deliberately avoiding both "the Persian Gulf" and "the Arabian Gulf". It still seems a reasonable course to take and a small matter in the current priorities of the region.

From the perspective of Iranian nationalists, using "The Gulf" is evidently far from a neutral choice, but rather a deliberate slight against Iran and an acquiescence to Arab pressure groups. Similar protests have been lodged recently against The Economist and France's Louvre Museum. Wikipedia provides further background on the naming dispute.

According to Worldpress.org, the United Nations Secretariat has issued two editorial directives insisting on usage of "the Persian Gulf" rather than "the Arabian Gulf" or simply "the Gulf." An addendum to one directive reads, "The full name 'Persian Gulf' should be used in every case instead of the shorter term 'Gulf,' including in repetitions of the term after its initial use in a text." So from the U.N. Secretariat's point of view, use of "(the) Gulf" is off-limits in any circumstances (even after using "Persian Gulf" on first reference). Rather than wading into this minefield, I'd suggest Language Log adopt its own editorial directive. From now on, we should only refer to "The Large Body of Water between the Arvandrud/Shatt al-Arab River Delta and the Straits of Hormuz."

In the same column, Mayes reports on another disputed usage in the pages of the Guardian:

A subject of greater discussion has been the term "friendly fire", arising from the revelation earlier this month of more details of the US air attack in Iraq which killed Lance Corporal of Horse Matty Hull. The discussion was about the provenance of the term and whether the Guardian was right to use it without any quotation marks.
Dictionary entries seem to suggest a root in the way the word "friendly" was used in the first world war to denote a shell fired by the allied side. "Friendly fire" had certainly emerged as a self-contained term by the time of the first Gulf war. The Oxford English Dictionary quotes from the Independent of February 22 1991: "Since the war began, more American troops are thought to have been killed by 'friendly fire' than by the Iraqis ... " Note the quotes.

Mayes does a better job reading the OED than last time around, but he can rest assured that "friendly fire" emerged as a "self-contained term" long before the first Gulf war. (Wait! I mean "the first Large Body of Water..." Ah, forget it.) It can be found in the New York Times archive back to World War I, without scare quotes:

New York Times, Oct 18, 1918, p. 11
When the infantry was advancing in a position exposed to cross fire he volunteered and carried a message to the advancing troops, informing them that a machine gun barrage laid down on the enemy emplacements was friendly fire from a unit not in their support and acting without orders to cover their advance.

(I came across this citation five years ago, but the lexicographical wheels move verrrry slowwwwly at the OED. The earliest cite given for the phrase "friendly fire" in the unrevised entry for friendly is from 1976.)

So the idea behind scare-quoting "friendly fire" is to flag its usage as a military euphemism &mdash a "propagandistic" one, at that. Though the quoted style can be found in many news organs, the Guardian opts against it: "The style guide editor believes that 'friendly fire' has entered the language, and he thinks using it without quotes is all right." Given its unquoted use in newspapers all the way back to 1918, along with the established military sense of friendly to mean "of or allied with one's own forces," I think the Guardian chooses well in this case. Now, "collateral damage" is another matter...

[Update #1: The LLP water cooler is abuzz. Roger Shuy wonders:

What next? Immigration opponents from Houston boycotting use of the Gulf of Mexico? Patriotic Chicagoans and Wisconsinites objecting to Lake Michigan? And what about the Indian Ocean?

Funny he should mention the Indian Ocean. One of the nationalist/expansionist gestures made by Sukarno, Indonesia's first president, was a unilateral renaming of the Indian Ocean, officially dubbing it "the Indonesian Ocean" (Lautan Indonesia). I believe it still appears that way on many Indonesian maps.]

[Update #2: Stephen Jones writes from cartographic experience:

You would be fired in most of the Gulf states if you gave out maps with the words "Persian Gulf" written on them. I soon learnt to use graphic programs to drown the offending word in water.
Faced with two competing nationalisms, the use of "The Gulf" seems common-sensical.

And Steven Poole, author of Unspeak, has some useful observations about "friendly fire":

You are of course right to say that "friendly" is established as meaning "of or allied with one's own forces"; yet I can't help feeling that there is a kind of leakage of the sense of "amicable" into the phrase "friendly fire", lending it a certain quota of euphemism when used to mean forces killing their own, ie a fatal balls-up. Moreover, the NYT citation from 1918 that you give does not actually use "friendly fire" in the modern sense in question, does it? It's referring to "a machine gun barrage laid down on the enemy emplacements", i.e. fire directed by other "friendly" forces at the enemy, not (accidentally) at their comrades.

Excellent point about the 1918 cite. It's possible that the overriding sense of "friendly fire" changed later on, from "(intentional) fire by a friendly at an enemy" to "(accidental) fire by a friendly at a friendly." But even in the 1918 example, the "friendly fire" was unexpected, with the potential to cause damage to allied troops due to lack of coordination. In any case, more research is definitely needed. As for "collateral damage," Poole explores the history of the phrase on pp. 116-9 of Unspeak.]

Note added by Geoff Pullum: the funny thing about objections to not using the P-word when referring to the (sigh) Large-Body-of-Water between-the-Arvandrud/Shatt-al-Arab-River-Delta and-the-Straits-of-Hormuz (henceforth the LBoWbtASaARDatSoH) is that it can't be about ownership: legal control over the territorial waters in question is divided between several nations. It's actually about having international or foreign nations' waters named after an older version (Persia) of the name of one's own country (Iran). Yet no doubt that name was assigned by British or other colonial powers anyway [oops! no, I'm about 2,000 years off in that guess; I really should look stuff up; see Joseph Ruby's comment below]. If only people could see that there is little power or influence in a proper name. It's just a few syllables slung together with a denotation attached, like the Separate Customs Territory of Taiwan, Penghu, Kinmen, and Matsu (Chinese Taipei).

[Update #3: Joseph Ruby follows up on Geoff Pullum's suggestion that the "Persian Gulf" label was "no doubt ... assigned by British or other colonial powers anyway."

No doubt, except that it happens to be incorrect. This isn't the Americas or darkest Africa we're talking about. This is the cradle of civilization. Alexander the Great had a fleet in the Persian Gulf, and the ancient Greek sources for our knowledge of Alexander call it "Persian." As for the colonial era, Persia was never a European colony. It has been independent since 1733, when it expelled various Turkish, Afghan and Russian forces. In the late 19th century, the British had considerable influence, but never direct rule of the sort that would have allowed them to impose new geographical names. We got the name either from the ancient Persians to the ancient Greeks to the Romans to us, or later from the medieval Arab geographers to the medieval European geographers to us, or both. If you're looking for British-imposed names for natural features in Asia, you have to go all the way to the Himalayas.
As for the ire of Iranians over the use of the term "the Gulf," don't forget that the bloodiest war since WWII was fought between Persians and Arabs in large part over the control of ports and islands at the north end of the Gulf. Imagine the public reaction if a British paper started to use the term "the Channel" in deference to French sensibilities, and you can get a sense of the issue.

The Wikipedia page on the naming dispute shows a series of maps illustrating the long history of the "Persian Gulf" name.]

[Update #4: Jay Cummings responds to Joseph Ruby:

Joseph Ruby suggests that it would be unusual for a British paper to refer to "The Channel". A news source, or just about anyone, will use the shortest form that conveys the meaning. "The Gulf", despite there being hundreds, maybe thousands, of "The X Gulf" place names in the world, is well-defined _for_the_moment_ as LBoWbtASaARDatSoH. Tomorrow, it could be the Gulf of Tonkin or the Gulf of Mexico again. I wonder which of "The Gulf of X" or "The X Gulf" forms lends itself more to shortening to "The Gulf"?
The British in fact do use "The Channel" rather than "The English Channel" quite frequently. I doubt it is from deference to French sensibilities, but they do use it despite there being an Irish Channel as well. It is hard to google for "The Channel" vs "The English Channel" without getting a lot of television rubbish, but it appears that "The Channel" is actually more common in casual usage. I expect the use is not objectionable because of self-confidence, if anything. The insistence on "Persian Gulf" or whatever just shows the fear that nationalists in the region feel. It seems very unlikely that people in Iran always say [the Farsi equivalent of] "The Persian Gulf", in cases where there is clearly only one gulf they could mean.
The French, of course, refer to the body of water as "la Manche". I don't think the English get all bent up about that. Then there are The Channel Islands, which are neither English nor United Kingdom, technically.

[And one final comment from Joseph Ruby:

Of course the English say "the Channel," just as here in Maryland we say "the Bay" and we don't mean San Francisco. The point is that there's no style-book rule that forbids an English reporter from saying "the English Channel." This is how the Iranians see the studied omission of the word "Persian." They don't mind "the Gulf" as a short form, but if you forbid the use of the historical name "the Persian Gulf" they feel that you're signaling favoritism to the Arab cause. ]

Posted by Benjamin Zimmer at February 19, 2007 05:19 PM