Of butterflies and dragon seeds
May 29, 2008
Welcome to listeners of PRI’s The World, where Lisa Mullins today interviewed me about Unspeak, on the occasion of the announcement of a treaty to ban “cluster bombs” (which hasn’t been signed by the major users and manufacturers of “cluster bombs”). The term “cluster bomb” itself, as previously noted here, is Unspeak — since a cluster is a collection of things that are “close together” (in two OED definitions), and yet a “cluster bomb” is designed to spray its separate explosives over a large area. (One of its applications is “area denial”, as in southern Lebanon in 2006.)
The phrase is so familiar nowadays that it is one of those Unspeak terms (like “concentration camp”) that has been leached of all its obfuscatory power. We know that the thing it denotes is nasty. However, it’s interesting to note that the first usage recorded by the OED, from a 1967 Guardian report, shows the writer knew what was up: it’s handled gingerly, in scare quotes:
‘Cluster bombs’ which, on impact, spray bullets around.
Actually, we can antedate that right away, thanks to Google News Archive, which records this inspirational Washington Post headline from 1965:
Speedy Jets Using New Cluster Bomb Against Viet Reds1
Quite. Meanwhile, another result from a 1967 New York Times article shows that
the official terminology back then was not “cluster” bombs but “fragmentation bombs”. Update: see correction here. Perhaps that fell out of favour after the negative publicity that attached to the phenomenon of “fragging” among US forces in Vietnam, in which dangerously incompetent officers were killed (originally with fragmentation grenades) by their subordinates.2
Sources agree that “cluster bombs”, before their enthusiastic adoption by the US, were first invented by the Nazis, but they were Unspoken differently back then. The German armed forces in 1939 called their weapon the “Butterfly” (Schmetterling or Sprengbombe Dickwandig ), which actually named the individual “bomblets” whose casings hinged open like wings. (Later, the Soviet version was popularly called “Molotov’s breadbasket”.) More ominous than the term “butterfly” was the name for an advanced new “cluster bomb” announced by West Germany in 1971: the “Dragon Seed”.
One American “cluster bomb dispenser unit”, the SUU-30, can be modified into an LBU-30, which drops leaflets instead of “bomblets”. LBU stands for, and I kid you not, “Leaflet Bomb Unit”. You know, because words are weapons too!
- Presumably these were the same “cluster bomb units” that had been tested in an exercise reported in the Great Bend Tribune (full text paywalled) of November 9, 1964: google news archive’s earliest result. ↩
- I can’t quite decide whether the fact that “fragging” now just means shooting someone’s avatar in a videogame should count as a trivialization of the word’s origin or as a llinguistic tribute to the soldiers who took such action. ↩