Weaponizations of mass destruction

In the war of words between journalists and politicians, many new weapons are being deployed.

But though language is being armed to the teeth, the only shots being fired are metaphorical.

We’ll start with the obvious targets: Donald Trump “weaponized his own Twitter account during the campaign, using it to bash opponents and share his messages directly to his supporters,” one report said. Another said that, given Trump’s access to intelligence information, “it seems almost assured that he will deploy and weaponize those same secrets in ‘unpresidented’ ways, to win personal fights and minor PR battles.” On financial regulations, David Dayen wrote in the winter edition of The American Prospect, “With Trump’s appetite for vindictiveness,” a strategy of selective enforcement in the financial community “could be used not to obliterate financial regulation, but to weaponize it.”

Trump’s not the only one wielding these new weapons, though. Former President Barack Obama apparently bore arms as well, with one columnist lamenting, “Obama’s politicization of the Internal Revenue Service and his weaponization of the Department of Justice, the FBI and the Environmental Protection Agency, among others.” Another discussed how Hillary Clinton’s victory could have cemented “the Obama administration’s weaponization of the federal government.”

In November, The Atlantic wrote of its yearlong study that showed how nearly all social media is being “weaponized.”

And even George and Martha, the protagonists in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, have “their weaponized, oh-so-lethal words.”

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Nowadays, it seems, everything can be “weaponized,” used in a way that is harmful to someone or something.

The use of “weaponized” (the adjective, not the practice) was born of the Cold War, with the Oxford English Dictionary tracing its first appearance to 1956 in the journal International Security in a description of what one euphemistically calls a “nuclear device.” “Weaponized” escalated into the verb “weaponize” the following year. It was another 10 years or so, the OED says, before “weaponizing” and “weaponization” exploded on the scene.

Until relatively recently, most things being “weaponized” could actually be used for physical harm: missiles, diseases, guns. The “weaponization” taking place now is not directly physically harmful, but it can create just as much damage.

We are now faced with the “weaponization” of documents and malware, “white privilege and predatory capitalism,the dollar…you get the picture. Anything wielded to harm can be “weaponized.” The Russian government-run news agency RT mocked all this “weaponization,” saying the West believed President Vladimir Putin was even looking to “weaponize” a 14-legged squid.

But “weaponization” is fast becoming a cliché: It shows up in Nexis nearly 1,000 times in the month before the presidential transition; in the same period a year earlier, barely 300 uses of “weaponization” and its cohort show up in Nexis; nearly all of them referring to actual tools of war.

Last summer, Slate wrote how ubiquitous “weaponization” has become:

On the one hand, everything is a weapon. We are attacking each other online with memes, in popular culture with sexist subtexts, on university campuses with safe spaces. On the other hand, nothing is an actual weapon.

Slate argued that “The spread of weaponize is a mass destruction of literal weaponization. When metaphors become more violent, as with weaponize, it may just mean our world is becoming less so.”

We’ll take the opposite view: Overuse of “weaponization” blunts its force, so audiences could become inured when the talk is of “weaponized” drones or other things that are literal weapons, not literary ones. This is an arms race we should lose.

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.