Language – Unfriendly

By Mordechai Schiller

When I was a kid in Brooklyn, I never heard the expression nation-state. However, I did hear of the National League.

Much to the chagrin of some friends and family, I was never a sports fan. Maybe it had something to do with my shape. I was too well-rounded. Even when my Dad took us to Ebbets Field, while my brothers were filling out their scorecards, I was more involved in wondering how the vendors got the peanuts salted in the shell.

But baseball in Brooklyn wasn’t just a sport. It was a culture and a social force. To anyone who grew up in the era of the subway series, the Brooklyn vs. Bronx turf wars evoked fierce patriotic fervor. There were no globalists in the boroughs.

Only in the ’60s did I reject regionalism and become a peacenik. But I was jolted out of my pacifism on June 6, 1967, in Jerusalem, when the sirens went off and the taxi I grabbed had to stop after half a block because of the shelling. There’s something disruptive about mortar shells exploding on the street in front of you. It ruins your whole day.

News media have recently been using the expression friendly fire to describe the heartbreaking accidental killing of three hostages. It’s not my place to judge or vindicate anybody. (Still, by tradition, I can’t help but ask, has anyone raised the possibility that the terrorists intentionally released them into a battle zone in order to blame the Israelis for killing them?)

The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines friendly fire: “Weapon fire coming from one’s own forces or allies, esp. (in later use) when it causes accidental death or injury to one’s comrades.”

Roy Peter Clark, senior scholar at the Poynter Institute school of journalism, wrote an insightful essay: “Friendly Fire: Learn Its History Before You Use It.” He questioned whether it should be avoided as euphemism or propaganda, the way some writers avoid “collateral damage.” He cited the OED definition, as well as a post on Language Log, where Ben Zimmer quoted a 1918 N.Y. Times article about Army Chaplain T.E. Iwan of Saginaw, Michigan, who was rewarded for “Heroism Shown in Fighting on the Marne”:

“When the infantry was advancing in a position exposed to cross fire he volunteered and carried a message to the advancing troops, informing them that a machine gun barrage laid down on the enemy emplacements was friendly fire from a unit not in their support and acting without orders to cover their advance.”

Steven Poole, author of Unspeak, pointed out to Zimmer that the citation does not use “friendly fire” in the modern sense. The 1918 Times story refers “to ‘a machine gun barrage laid down on the enemy emplacements,’ i.e., fire directed by other ‘friendly’ forces at the enemy, not (accidentally) at their comrades.”

The modern meaning of friendly fire came later. But I traced the first incident to 1871, when James Butler (“Wild Bill”) Hickok was marshal in Abilene, Kansas. He had a showdown with Phil Coe, a local saloon owner and gunfighter. Coe shot at Hickok, who shot back and dropped him. But then Hickok noticed someone running toward him with his gun drawn. Instinctively he spun around and shot — only to discover he had killed his own Deputy Marshal Mike Williams, who had come out to help.

Hickock never recovered. He developed what was then called “warrior’s heart.” Today it’s called post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

A favorite sport of word nerds is trying to antedate sources missed by the OED. Likely, many of them were members of what William Safire called his “Gotcha! Gang … shock troops of the Nitpicker’s League” … who took delight in catching errors in his column and sent off irate letters, usually beginning with the words, “You, of all people …”

Well, I found that Safire’s spirit antedated me with an earlier case of friendly fire. Safire reported, “The Confederate general Stonewall Jackson was shot by mistake by one of his own men and was mortally wounded at the Battle of Chancellorsville in 1863. That kind of tragic accident of war came to be known during World War II as friendly fire. The phrase was not used in reporting our shooting down over Sicily in 1943 of 319 U.S. paratroopers and airmen, one of the worst such incidents in our history.”

Sadly, it was not the last.

Why has this expression become so popular? According to Clark, “Its appeal comes from alliteration: the repetition of the ‘f’ and ‘r’ sounds in both words. The first word has two syllables, followed by a one-syllable word. While the alliteration offers similarity, the two lengths suggest difference. That difference turns into a kind of ironic tension when we get to semantics: that violence directed at an enemy injures or kills those fighting for your side. You think you are shooting at your foes, but instead you hit your friends.”

Rabbi Reuven Chaim Klein, who writes the “What’s In a Word” column for Ohr Somayach, explains the phrase Ir Miklat — City of Refuge — where “somebody who murders by mistake may flee and escape the wrath of his victim’s vengeful relatives.” Miklat “clearly refers to the concept of ‘saving,’ as such cities ‘receive’ those who flee into them and offer legal protection and sanctuary.”

The commentators seem divided over the main purpose of the Cities of Refuge: Were they safe havens for accidental killers? Or were they mainly a form of exile — as punishment and penitence?

Either way, or both ways, they help the killer to cope with the unbearable guilt of having taken a life.

So, I ask, why say friendly fire, which reeks of sneering irony? How about misfire? Or backfire?

Or better yet, don’t use any glib term.

After all, it’s an unspeakable tragedy. n

Please send smiles, sticks and stones to

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