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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | militarese | “chickens coming home to roost,” “fallout,” “consequences”)

So you think you know what this word means? Actually, it means several different things, so chances are you’re right.

A century ago, “blowback” had mainly to do with guns and ammunition. It still does, although the original meaning doesn’t show up much any more — fire or explosion caused by the breech of an artillery gun opening at the wrong moment, allowing flames and explosive gases to go out the back end of the gun rather than the front end. (That’s the best I can do, even though my uncle was a gunsmith.) I found several descriptions and definitions of the phenomenon, which are broadly similar but differ in significant details, and I don’t know enough about how guns work to make sense of it all. Anyway, this sort of blowback is dangerous and can cause death, among other things. Nowadays when “blowback” is used of a firearm, it almost always refers to a means of loading cartridges in a semi-automatic pistol or rifle. (See impassioned technical explanation here.) The idea seems to be that some of the gases under pressure generated in firing a bullet are directed toward pushing the next shell into the chamber, causing the weapon to reload automatically, until it jams.

Both of these gun-related usages are found in Webster’s Third and were available before the foreign-policy/CIA-type use of the word we are more likely to think of today. But even in this narrow field of definition, “blowback” has undergone a decided change. Around the time of the Church Committee hearings on CIA misdeeds in the mid-1970’s, this term began to creep into the press, meaning disinformation. More specifically, “blowback” was defined as a fake news story prepared by one of our intelligence agencies for dissemination abroad that later was reported as fact by the U.S. press. I think it’s still notionally true that the CIA is not supposed to do its dirty work within the borders of the U.S., although of course it does and always has. But politicians still considered it worthwhile in those days to object to Americans being subjected to lies intended for foreigners. (They had no comparable objections to lies intended expressly for domestic consumption.) Christopher Simpson’s book “Blowback: America’s Recruitment of Nazis and its Effects on the Cold War” (1988) had to do with “unexpected and undesired domestic effects of foreign covert actions,” according to one reviewer. Such a definition is vague enough to encompass the meaning limned above and the more specific meaning in use by the early 1990’s: attacks on U.S. people or facilities inspired by previous U.S. operations, covert or overt. (Or maybe simply in response to an unofficial provocation, like encouraging people to draw cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.) Here is a definition-by-example offered by Charles G. Cogan, the former C.I.A. operations chief for the Near East and South Asia, in the wake of the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993: “The hypothesis that the mujahedeen would come to the United States and commit terrorist actions did not enter into our universe of thinking [during the covert war against the Soviets in Afghanistan].” Another book titled “Blowback,” published in 2000 by Chalmers Johnson, probably gave this meaning of the term a boost, though it was already current.

Cogan went on to use the expression “unintended consequence,” a favorite of bureaucrats caught with their pants down. “Blowback,” while it has a fairly clear definition, is also a bit slippery and seems more comfortable as part of a constellation rather than standing bravely on its own. Let’s not even consider the cases in which “blowback” substitutes for “pushback,” a usage that has become common. “Blowback” now is often used to mean “adverse reaction from almost anyone,” not just aggrieved foreigners. But let’s think instead about some related expressions. An obvious one is “blow up in one’s face,” not a precise synonym but clearly in the neighborhood. “Payback.” Definitely an element of vengeance in “blowback” as we use it today. “Karma,” which may apply to corporate bodies (though, as of 2015, not generally the government), also comes to mind. There’s a little jungle of overlapping expressions here, none of which means the same thing as any other but all of which call the others quickly to mind.

I can’t resist closing with an instance of “blowback” from U.S. Navy regulations propagated in 1913: “The danger of a broken firing pin point or on the fusing of metal on the face of the breech-block, due to a primer blowback, shall be constantly borne in mind and guarded against.” Isn’t that great? They don’t write ’em like that any more.


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