Monday, August 16, 2010

The OED has a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment

It is no secret that I have a great love of language and a particular passion for what happens when language usage approaches (and sometimes crosses) the brink of indelicacy. Last year there was a rather amusing period during with journalists in general and Bob Woodward in particular had to confront the use of "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" in military discourse. Here is how I summarized the situation last September:

Last July I gave National Security Advisor James L. Jones a Chutzpah of the Week award. It was not only that he was taking a tough stand against military brass who were trying every available method to bring more troops to Afghanistan but also that he could invoke military rhetoric to make it clear just how tough that stand was. What did the trick for me was when he told that brass that, if Barack Obama was presented with a request for additional troops, he would have "a Whiskey Tango Foxtrot moment." Everyone in the room got the message; but Bob Woodward still felt it necessary to provide an explanation to Washington Post readers (which can be found on the other side of the above hyperlink). Since that time I have come to realize that "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" is as much a part of today's military language as "SNAFU" was during the Second World War; and, just as "SNAFU" found its way into our general vocabulary, "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" will probably do the same, particularly since the texting community may have started the whole thing with their use of "WTF."

That summary introduced a post entitled "Mozart's Whiskey Tango Foxtrot Moment," which was my way of saying that I had no problem with this particular argot wending its way out of the military and into the rest of the world.

Well, if I am to believe BBC Technology Reporter Zoe Kleinman's report today entitled "How the Internet is Changing Language," the wending I was supporting is getting assistance from a higher authority. In preparing this report, Kleinman interviewed Fiona McPherson, identified as "senior editor in the new words group at the OED." Because the British seem to have a more casual use of case than we do, I have no idea whether or not this is an "official" title or merely a descriptive phrase on Kleinman's part. However, because her position is "senior," I would assume that McPherson is a rather authoritative gatekeeper concerned with allowing additions to entries in the Oxford English Dictionary. Apparently, there are some texting abbreviations that are now making it through the gate; and (yes, Virginia) "WTF" is one of those that now has an "official" place in the OED. I was about to have a "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot" moment of my own when, in light of the above quotation, I decided to check my Shorter Oxford English Dictionary and confirmed that "snafu" (with lower-case spelling) is in there.

What interests me as much as this entry's flirtation with indelicacy is that OED gatekeeping no longer seems to care whether or not a word can be spoken if its written use is sufficiently prevalent. (For example, "TMI" has also been allowed through the gate; but "OMG" is still waiting at the entry. I like to think of "OMG" waiting there helplessly, rather like the protagonist in Franz Kafka's parable about the man waiting before the Gate of the Law.) I suppose there are those who now simply utter the letters in spoken discourse, whether those letters are "WTF" or "OMG;" but this reminds me of last Friday evening's performance by a group called EUOUAE, which I covered on I suggested there that we should not even try to pronounce that string of vowels and that it would make more sense to utter the words they abbreviate, "seculorum amen." OED or no OED, I suspect that polite society is not ready for a similar spoken approach to "WTF." Fortunately, we can take our lead from the military and continue to use "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot."

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