Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

At the Movies: Plumbing the Depths of "The Hurt Locker"

One of the frontrunners for Best Picture in Sunday's Academy Awards ceremony is Kathryn Bigelow's tense depiction of a U.S. bomb squad unit in Iraq, The Hurt Locker. The movie's official website says of the title, "In Iraq, it is soldier vernacular to speak of explosions as sending you to 'the hurt locker.'" In fact, like so much American military slang, hurt locker (along with related hurt expressions) dates back to the Vietnam War.

In The Historical Dictionary of American Slang, Jonathan Lighter includes an extended entry for hurt in its military use, which he defines as "trouble or suffering, esp. deliberately or callously inflicted." One common use of hurt that sprang up in the Vietnam era is in the phrase a world of hurt, "great trouble or suffering." In "My First Day in Viet Nam Combat," an Oct. 15, 1967 battle report in the Chicago Tribune, new recruit Russell Enlow wrote, "But now, as I drained the last drop from the fourth canteen, I realized what a world of hurt I would be in if that resupply chopper didn't show."

Vietnam was a breeding ground for other hurt phrases, such as in the hurt locker, in the hurt bag and in the hurt seat, all defined by Lighter as "in trouble or at a disadvantage; in bad shape." On February 21, 1966, an Associated Press article by John T. Wheeler appeared in many newspapers around the country, quoting a U.S. military adviser as saying, "If an army marches on its stomach, old Charlie is in the hurt locker." ("Charlie is an American nickname for the Viet Cong," Wheeler explained to readers not yet familiar with such slang.) Then on July 27, 1967, in another AP report by Wheeler, hurt locker showed up in a quote from a corporal: "Then old Charlie opens up with those damned AK47 assault rifles, and, whammo, we were really in the hurt locker."

Hurt bag and hurt seat also saw some play (Lighter cites a drill instructor in 1971 who said, "I'm gonna put you in the hurt seat and leave you there!"), but it was hurt locker that had staying power. After the war, many memoirs and fictionalized accounts kept the phrase circulating, perhaps most notably the 1978 novel Fields of Fire by Jim Webb, a Marine Corps infantry officer who now serves in the U.S. Senate from Virginia. Near the beginning of the book, Webb has one Marine say to another, "We could really be in the hurt locker tonight."

Moving ahead a few decades to the Iraq War, hurt locker found new resonance when it was used as the title of a poem written by Brian Turner in 2004. On his return from a year of Army service in Iraq, Turner published Here, Bullet (2005), a critically acclaimed collection of poetry inspired by his wartime experiences. "The Hurt Locker" begins in typically wrenching fashion, "Nothing but the hurt left here," and ends:

Open the hurt locker
and see what there is of knives
and teeth. Open the hurt locker and learn
how rough men come hunting for souls.

This moving poem was, perhaps, an inspiration for screenwriter Mark Boal (a journalist who was embedded with a bomb squad in Iraq) and director Kathryn Bigelow when they set about naming their film. It's a terse summation of the "world of hurt" in which Explosive Ordnance Disposal units often find themselves. The phrase has a claustrophobic feel, as if soldiers are trapped within the confined space of a military gear locker. It's hard to imagine a more fitting title for this gut-punch of a movie.

[Update: Master Sgt. Jeffrey Sarver, who was part of the unit Boal reported on, has filed a lawsuit against the makers of The Hurt Locker, claiming that Boal based the central character on him. According to the Detroit News, Sarver is also claiming that he coined the expression hurt locker. Sarver's lawyer should have checked out Google News Archive first.]

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Ben Zimmer is language columnist for The Wall Street Journal and former language columnist for The Boston Globe and The New York Times Magazine. He has worked as editor for American dictionaries at Oxford University Press and as a consultant to the Oxford English Dictionary. In addition to his regular "Word Routes" column here, he contributes to the group weblog Language Log. He is also the chair of the New Words Committee of the American Dialect Society. Click here to read more articles by Ben Zimmer.

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