Words Matter

Proper pronunciation is not a likely topic for a blog on biosecurity, particularly when written by someone who has great difficulty pronouncing the word “nuclear”.  (I blame that on spending too much time in Texas.)

However, it never ceases to amaze me how many people mispronounce the name of the Secretary of Homeland Security.  Not only do many broadcast journalists get it wrong, but so do people at DHS—even some very senior people.

The fourth syllable in her last name sounds like “tan”.  Just think of what a great tan one can get in Arizona (where she previously served as Governor).  When I mention this, many doubt my assertion.  The best way to prove my point, is to listen to how the Secretary pronounces her name.  (I have found that few people mispronounce their own names.)

So why do I write about this?  Two reasons. First, it is important (and polite) to correctly pronounce people’s names. Second, it gets me to the real message in this blog.

When I served as the chairman of the Department of Military Strategy and Operations at the National War College, I kept only one book on my desk: The Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms. We discovered a long time ago that using the right word or term is incredibly important.  Communication is difficult enough, but even more so when people are sloppy with their word selection.  The complex, diverse field of homeland security has made this even more of a challenge.

This was well demonstrated to me in 2002.  I conducted a series of workshops at Wye River that were funded by Dr. Peggy Hamburg, who at that time was running the biodefense program at NTI.  The purpose was to bring together senior leaders from law enforcement, intelligence, public health, and agriculture to discuss the security of the US food industry.  We quickly discovered that words were one of our greatest challenges.  When a law enforcement person used the word “surveillance”, their definition was quite different than those from intelligence, public health, and agriculture.

The old joke in the military about this problem is based on the word “secure”. Tell the Marines to “secure” a building and they will bring tanks, air strikes, and ground troops to bear until there is nothing left of the building or its occupants. Tell the Army to “secure” a building and they will bring in a company of infantry and surround the building and dig in, with their guns facing outward.  Tell the Navy or Coast Guard to “secure” a building and they will send a junior Petty Officer around to lock the doors and turn out the lights. But tell the Air Force to ‘secure” a building and they will send a Colonel with a contracting warrant to sign a lease.

The DoD dictionary didn’t solve all the problems with communications in the military, but it did go a long way in getting people on the same sheet of music.  For instance, when one of my students at NWC would say “total war”, I would ask them to look up that term in the dictionary—which says:  “Total War: do not use this term.”

Total war is a terribly confusing concept. To some it may mean using all available weapons, from bayonets to thermonuclear-tipped missiles.  To some one else it may mean nationalizing industry and drafting all able-bodied persons between 18-50.  To others it may be synonymous with a “Carthaginian Peace”.(1) In addition to saying “do not use this term”, the dictionary also suggests appropriate terms that should be used.

Unfortunately, the field of homeland security is far more diverse and complex than the military.  Two years ago, David Heyman (currently serving as the Assistant Secretary of Policy at DHS) and I were listening to a homeland security briefing from a state official in California.  He said, “We have recently seen a spike in SARs.”  This got our attention and a quick question because to us SARs meant severe acute respiratory syndrome.  The briefer was actually talking about suspicious activity reports.  Different acronyms and terms in the dozens of different fields associated with homeland security is but one of the problems.

Another problem, and the one that has no excuses, is just plain sloppiness.  I have no formal education in either public health or medicine.  In my attempt to avoid sounding like the village idiot when speaking about these subjects I try to be very careful with terminology.  What I find surprising is how often I hear high-level public health and medical personnel use the words “infectious” and “contagious” interchangeably.  When they do this to a highly informed public health audience, it is of little or no harm—everyone knows what the speaker meant to say.  The same is not true when speaking to the larger homeland security and national security communities.

There are countless other examples such as the difference between distributing and dispensing medical countermeasures, the difference between a county executive in Maryland and a county judge in Texas (virtually none), and the difference between a dirty bomb (RDD) and an IND (considerable).

Bottom line:  Please show the courtesy of pronouncing Secretary Napolitano’s name correctly (remember that tan from Arizona) and perhaps, someone should consider publishing a Homeland Security Dictionary.  It wouldn’t solve all of our problems, but it would be a step in the right direction for improving communications in this diverse, complex community.


(1) If you are not familiar with a Carthaginian Peace, and work in the field of national security, consider it your professional development research for the week.  See: http://en.academic.ru/dic.nsf/enwiki/1194412


About biosecureblog

Colonel Randall Larsen, USAF (Ret) -CEO, WMD Center -former Executive Director, Commission on the Prevention of Weapons of Mass Destruction Proliferation and Terrorism -former chairman, Department of Military Strategy and Operations, National War College
This entry was posted in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s