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Vocabulary Shout-Out: What Did John Kerry Mean By "Kinetic"?

During the Senate Foreign Relations Committee's hearing on the possible authorization of U.S. military action against the Syrian government, Secretary of State John Kerry used the word kinetic to refer to military action, while answering a question from Senator Ron Johnson (R-WI) about how many countries would join a U.S.-led coalition: 

SEC. KERRY: Well, our goal is to have as broad a coalition and support of what we might do as is possible, and we're working that right now. But the military and the president are going to have to decide how many they actually want to have take part in the action, as I said. We already have more partners ready to do something kinetic than the military feels, under this particular operation, we need to effect that.

The military sense of kinetic Kerry used is relatively new. After the raid on Osama bin Laden, linguist Neal Whitman delved into its origins on this blog:

The euphemistic feel of kinetic comes from its association with scientific inquiry. Unless you're a teacher (who deals with visual, auditory, and kinesthetic learning styles) or an artist (who might create kinetic sculptures), the word kinetic probably brings to mind high-school physics class, and lectures about potential and kinetic energy. In fact, in its first uses relating to the military or national defense, kinetic did mean "relating to kinetic energy." In the 1978 edition of the Code Name Handbook: Aerospace Defense Technology the acronym SKEW is defined as a "shoulder-fired kinetic energy weapon". A kinetic-energy weapon, as opposed to a chemical-energy weapon, is one that does its damage with the simple kinetic energy of the projectiles it fires. A gun with ordinary, non-exploding bullets would be one example of a kinetic energy weapon.

Alternatively, a kinetic energy weapon could be a missile or other heavy object hurled from space, as long as it isn't equipped with, say, a nuclear warhead. A 1983 article in the Boston Globe quotes a brochure for a weapons conference as mentioning missiles as kinetic energy weapons. One part of Ronald Reagan's proposed Strategic Defense Initiative/"Star Wars" missile-defense system was the "kinetic kill vehicle" (KKV). The term starts appearing in news reports from 1985, and continues to do so even now, though these days the focus is more on destroying Chinese rather than Russian missiles or satellites.

A year after the proposal of SDI, the phrase kinetic energy penetrator as a synonym/euphemism for bullet was in circulation, and five years after that, it got a real workout during Operation Desert Storm, when US tanks were equipped with kinetic energy penetrators made of depleted uranium — a good conveyor of kinetic energy because of its high density. (I have to say, though, that using DU as a weapon by turning it into a really heavy piece of ammunition is like using a barometer to determine the height of a building by throwing it over the edge and timing how long it takes to hit the ground.)

These uses of kinetic seem to have paved the way toward its broader meaning of military attacks, which had become well-established by the time of the September 11 terrorist attacks.

In addition to kinetic warfare and kinetic systems, there is a host of other 21st-century kinetic terms, including kinetic operations, kinetic capability, kinetic engagements, kinetic strike, kinetic activity, and kinetic targeting, i.e. bombing. These days the bombs don't have to be non-explosive; the opposite of kinetic targeting is soft targeting: dropping leaflets. Areas where fighting is going on are kinetic areas. Kinetic can be a predicate adjective, too, i.e., one that comes after a linking verb. An army unit might go kinetic, and an article from 2006 tells how British soldiers in Iraq believed their American counterparts were "too kinetic." (Kinetic Yankees, if you will.) There is even an adjective, post-kinetic, to describe reconstruction, or places where battles have taken place.

Read the remainder of Whitman's piece on kinetic here, or learn more words bandied about in Tuesday's hearing with "Vocabulary from the Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Syria."

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Comments from our users:

Friday September 6th 2013, 2:41 AM
Comment by: Balaji N. (India)
"the Americans using kinetic weaponry is not new. But Syria will have to face the wrath of the US".
Sunday September 8th 2013, 3:32 PM
Comment by: Marc K. (TN)
I feel as though he didn't mean 'kinetic' in the sense of kinetic weaponry so much as something relating to movement (That is, we are ready to begin the mission) rather then a proroguing of military action.
Monday September 9th 2013, 8:58 AM
Comment by: Chris B. (United Kingdom)
200 years ago the future Duke of Wellington, on military campaign in Portugal, wrote to his superiors in London informing them "... my army is disposable."
Fortunately for his troops that last word had not yet acquired its modern sense.
It meant they had the capacity for mobile, offensive warfare.
(Good shoes and enough mules?)

I suppose nowadays it could be reported that The Light Division displayed superior kineticity. (Shudders.)
Monday December 29th 2014, 11:12 AM
Comment by: Dr. Horn
kinetic as opposed to strategic?

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