Word Routes

Exploring the pathways of our lexicon

Of Pinpricks and Slam-Dunks: The Rhetoric of the Syrian Conflict

The situation in Syria has revived a number of well-worn foreign-policy phrases, from "boots on the ground" to "slam-dunks" and "smoking guns." As the American response to the conflict has involved far more in the way of words than deeds, it's worth taking a closer look at the words used by officials and commentators, no matter how hackneyed.

boots on the ground: In President Obama's address to the nation on Tuesday, he reiterated that his administration "will not put American boots on the ground in Syria." Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn picked up on the uptick in talk about "boots on the ground" last week, putting it on "cliché watch." The late William Safire covered the expression in a 2008 "On Language" column, in which he traced it back (with the help of Army historian Matthew Seelinger) to a 1980 example in the Christian Science Monitor about the Iranian hostage crisis: "Many American strategists now argue that even light, token US land forces—'getting US combat boots on the ground', as General [Volney F.] Warner puts it—would signal to an enemy that the US is physically guarding the area."

But one could read the 1980 example as talking about the actual "US combat boots" that would touch ground if land forces were to arrive in Iran for a rescue operation. The phrase wouldn't get fixed as "boots on the ground" until the 1990s, when it came to refer to troops by means of the rhetorical device of synecdoche: letting the part stand for the whole. Since then, as Zorn notes, "boots on the ground" has grown to be an unavoidable cliché in any discussion of a potential U.S. military intrusion overseas.

exceptionalism: President Obama ended Tuesday's address by lauding the exceptionalism of American foreign policy: "That's what makes America different.  That's what makes us exceptional." Russian President Vladimir Putin countered this statement in an op/ed piece published in the New York Times on Thursday: "I would rather disagree with a case he made on American exceptionalism," Putin wrote. "It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to see themselves as exceptional, whatever the motivation."

The irony is that "American exceptionalism" first came out of a Marxist debate over whether the United States was immune to what Marx thought was an inevitable move of capitalist societies toward communism. But as I described in a Word Routes column in 2011 when "exceptionalism" became a buzzword among Republican presidential candidates, the term now takes on highly patriotic overtones. Two years ago, Republicans accused Obama of lacking faith in American exceptionalism. Now, when he explicitly calls the U.S. "exceptional" in its foreign policy, he gets critiqued by Putin instead.

pinprick: "As some members of Congress have said, there's no point in simply doing a 'pinprick' strike in Syria," Obama said in his address. "Let me make something clear:  The United States military doesn't do pinpricks." Once again this is ground covered by William Safire: way back in 1996, Safire noted that pinprick had become "the primary derogation of inadequate military action." At the time, foreign-policy hawks were using the pinprick epithet for President Clinton's response to Iraqi advances on Kurdish areas with two Tomahawk cruise missile strikes.

The Oxford English Dictionary takes pinprick's figurative meaning of "a petty annoyance" all the way back to 1853, with the expression "a combat of pin-pricks" (a translation of the French  une lutte à coups d'épingle). Later in the 19th century, a "policy of pinpricks" (politique de coups d'épingle) served as a common expression for niggling French hostility toward British imperialism. In contemporary warfare, when air strikes are called "pinpricks," their effects are made to seem minimal. Obama has been trying to pull off a balancing act by saying that any targeted strikes would be "limited" but would transcend mere pinpricks.

red line: Last year, President Obama said that if Syria's Assad regime used chemical weapons against its own people, that would constitute a perilous "red line." Last week, as evidence of a sarin gas attack mounted, he hastened to internationalize the "red line" rhetoric, saying, "I didn't set a red line; the world set a red line."

I devoted a Wall Street Journal column to the history of "red line" in July, after Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu used the image to galvanize worldwide response to Iran's nuclear weapon program. As I describe in the column, "red line" has special resonance in Israel, where the Hebrew equivalent, kav adom, is used to describe the crucial freshwater level of Lake Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee). Israeli politicians have preferred using "red line" to the similar expression "line in the sand" at least since 1975, when Foreign Minister Yigal Allon spoke of the "red line which all the Arab countries know they must not cross—that America is not going to sacrifice Israel for the sake of Arab support." (I also talked to Voice of America about the history of the "red line" metaphor last year.)

slam-dunk: "The word 'slam-dunk' should be retired from American national security issues," Secretary of State John Kerry told David Gregory on "Meet the Press," after Gregory asked if the evidence of a sarin gas attack was a "slam-dunk case." In my latest Wall Street Journal column (paywalled, but free via Google+), I look at how "slam-dunk" transitioned from basketball to politics, business, and the legal world, culminating in the notorious use of the term by CIA director George Tenet in 2002, expressing assurance that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction.

Los Angeles Lakers play-by-play announcer Chick Hearn is credited with first using "slam-dunk" to describe Wilt Chamberlain's above-the-rim play after he joined the Lakers in 1968. The earliest metaphorical uses that I found center around southern California about a decade later, perhaps among Lakers fans who had grown up listening to Hearn. For instance, in the Aug. 23, 1979 Los Angeles Times, a supporter of Assemblyman Bruce Nestande, who was running for a supervisorial seat against Edison W. Miller, said, "We don't think the defeat of Ed Miller is a slam dunk." And in October of that year, Greater San Diego Sports Association president James E. Brown told the San Diego Union that he was confident that the city would host some of the preliminaries during 1984's Summer Olympics in Los Angeles: "When you consider the alternatives, it's a slam dunk."

The National Journal's Matt Berman has pointed out how inapt "slam-dunk" is for describing an easy achievement, since "in real-life sports, a slam dunk isn't even guaranteed." But he's hardly the first to make this point. After William Safire wrote about "slam-dunk" in a 1986 column, he heard from Richard Holbrooke, who had left the diplomatic service to serve as managing director of Lehman Brothers. In a letter that Safire reprinted in his book Language Maven Strikes Again, Holbrooke writes:

For those of us who don't play anymore, this shot, combining ballet and athletics, is obviously very difficult and demanding. However, in the investment banking world, with which I am now associated, I heard the word used in a different context, so that it means, in effect, "a piece of cake." … I guess what this adds up to is that one man's slam-dunk is another's "easy layup." Come to think of it, a slam-dunk is an easy layup to Dr. J.

smoking gun: "Slam-dunk" has been paired with "smoking gun" in the questioning of the evidence of Syria's chemical weapons use. "So far, no slam-dunk, smoking-gun evidence – the kind that proved to be so elusive in Iraq 10 years ago – has been produced," wrote the Christian Science Monitor's Brad Knickerbocker. The Atlantic's Connor Simpson agrees: "There's no smoking gun, no slam dunk, no physical evidence tracing the chemical attack definitively back to Syrian President Bashar al-Assad."

Like "slam-dunk," "smoking gun" serves as an unfortunate reminder of the amped-up rhetoric leading up to the Iraq War. In presenting the case that Iraq had WMDs, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice famously mixed her metaphors by telling CNN, "We don't want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud."

When the proverbial "smoking gun" was not forthcoming in Iraq, Safire was once again on the case, looking at the expression's history as "the favorite figure of speech meaning ''incontrovertible incrimination.'" Safire traces the image back to an 1893 Sherlock Holmes story, "The Gloria Scott," where Arthur Conan Doyle describes a murderer with a "smoking pistol." But on Google Books it is now easy to push that literary depiction back another half a century: an 1843 story in Blackwood's Magazine describes a killer "resting his arms on his yet smoking gun."

Safire was correct, however, in ascribing the rise of the metaphorical "smoking gun" to the Watergate scandal, when Nixon's defenders asked, "Where's the smoking gun?" In the case of Syria, Assad may serve up the smoking gun himself, since he has now agreed to turn over the country's arsenal of chemical weapons.

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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.