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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years

embedded

(2000’s | bureaucratese | “accompanying,” “staff”)

LexisNexis doesn’t show any evidence that anyone used “embedded” to refer to war correspondents treated as part of military units before Donald Rumsfeld in 2003, so chalk this one up to the Bush administration. Before 2000, the word was available in figurative senses and used regularly in writing about finance, computer science, and the arts, and those uses persist. But Rumsfeld gave it a lasting and memorable twist, changing the face of journalism. (NPR recently created a series called “Embedded” in an effort to make respectable a term journalists have always been queasy about.)

It’s worth pausing over the meaning and implications of “embedded” in the Rumsfeldian sense. He presented the concept as a way to counter Iraqi war propaganda and give the lie to Saddam Hussein, a neat bit of misdirection. His real goal was giving the appearance of endorsing the freedom of the press to cover the war while placing restrictions on its ability to do so, and eliciting more favorable reporting by increasing the likelihood that the inkstained wretches would sympathize with the soldiers. These are classic examples of authoritarian strategy to blunt and curtail freedom, and Rumsfeld succeeded in feigning respect for the First Amendment while limiting the damage its free exercise might do to the war effort or his own reputation. Reporters fell into line when it became clear that the non-embedded would be subject to the same restrictions without comparable access to the military’s spokespersons. In 1968, of course, war correspondents did their work with or without cooperation from the authorities — but Vietnam taught the authorities to fear the press, and they have tried various means since then to constrain war reporting. Embedding is just the latest example.

Why “embedded,” anyway? There’s a passing resemblance to “embattled,” but more importantly, it lacks the possible connotations of “planted,” which sounds dishonest, or “ridealong,” which sounds frivolous, or “team,” which sounds mundane (the last two, being adjectives, lose some of the force of the past participle). Bringing in a less obvious word has advantages, such as avoiding prejudices built into more familiar or intuitive expressions. What “embedded” does connote in this sense is a bit of a mystery, though. Traditionally, the word was used to imply that something was firmly, even immovably, fixed in something else. In computer jargon, it often took on the sense of “built-in.” All very cozy, right? The timid correspondents, tucked securely in the benevolent bosom of the regiment, relaying only fair and honest progress reports to loyal Americans back home. The suspicion that embedded reporters are sell-outs has never been completely quieted, and that is partly because the word suggests that they passively accepted a compromised position imposed by someone else — they did not embed themselves; they were embedded. Before Rumsfeld, people did not get embedded in anything, except as the result of a horrible mishap. Now, if you’re a journalist, it’s part of the job.

Thanks one more time to lovely Liz from Queens, who so often proposes blog fodder but this time did it unawares, while discussing artists in the days before photography who went along on expeditions to paint whatever natives, flora and fauna, etc. they discovered, so there would be a visual record of exotic dwellers in other climes. When she described them as “embedded,” I realized right away that it was just the right word, and certainly a modern one. No way she (or anyone) would have used “embedded” that way thirty years ago.

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