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Lex maniac

Investigating changes in American English vocabulary over the last 40 years


(1990’s | miltarese | “arm,” “turn into a weapon”)

The use of “weaponize” to mean “convert into an effective implement of destruction” goes back to the first decades of the atomic age, when intercontinental ballistic missiles raised the stakes of nuclear conflict; a lumbering B-29 was no longer needed to deliver the payload. One writer traces the term to Wernher von Braun in 1957 in precisely that context. Germs and toxic chemicals may be placed on warheads, too, but weaponizing them usually involves placing them in a medium or solution in which they can be spread around a large area quickly and reliably. The concept may require more than simply creating a weapon — it is closer to taking an existing weapon (an atomic bomb, say) and making it easier to wield and capable of still greater damage.

This term seems to have effloresced as a result of 9/11, or anyhow, that’s how many observers saw it at the time. It wasn’t admitted to the Oxford English Dictionary until 2003, but several glossaries of 9/11-related terms compiled in 2002 included “weaponize.” That wasn’t because of the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon — there was an opportunity to refer to “weaponizing” the passenger jets, though no one did — but the anthrax scare that followed on its heels, when letters containing the spores were mailed to various government officials and journalists. One question that emerged from the long and unsatisfactory investigation was whether the anthrax spores had been “weaponized.” That is, had they been mixed with other chemicals (such as silica) to make them more likely to do harm? I think that was how most Americans first became fully aware of the word, although it had seen modest use before then mainly to mean “stock with weapons” — a common example occurred in debates over whether or not to “weaponize space,” debates we are still having, although not in those words. Proportionally, at least, it is much less ordinary now to use “weaponize” that way; you still see it, but it seems slightly old-fashioned.

It’s not quite true to say that 9/11 was the day “weaponize” stopped going with “space” and started going with “anthrax” (or some other chemical agent), but only because the anthrax scare began a week later and it took a month or two for the newish term to stake its claim. To this day, writers who try to uphold a sense of prose tradition might put “weaponize” in scare quotes, marking it as a new and suspect word. Like “incentivize,” “weaponize” has a discordant, jargony sound, another example of a widely decried means of creating a verb where there was none before. The “-ize” have it! Or rather, us grumpy grammarians have had it with “-ize” verbs.

By 2010, the expression was in figurative use, and now I would venture that such usage predominates. Always a term with political implications, it appears now in overtly political contexts, another grenade deployed to disable those who disagree with you, like “hive mind” and “word salad.” In particular, we talk of any commodity or quality used offensively or aggressively as being weaponized; fear, the Bible, information, the First Amendment, bond holdings, diplomacy, and many more have all been so denominated recently. A hint of carelessness has crept into the way we use this word, but mostly it embodies the notion of taking something not normally thought of as a means to attack others and going on the offensive with it. The word therefore has lost its technical shading in favor of an accusing tone and imputations of low-down and uncivil conduct.

Honors go to scintillating Pern of Los Angeles, who proposed this week’s expression. The West Coast is rising!


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