Fighting talk

There are words whose unexpected appearance in the public domain causes a combination of fascination and dictionary grabbing. And then there is another category of words whose appearance is so utterly surprising that you just have to sit back and admire the sheer etymological bravado of it all. Such a word popped up in headlines the world over this past Friday. The American government’s choice of ‘bellicose’ to describe the rhetoric of North Korea might be wholly accurate, but it is still a delight to see such a wonderful (and relatively arcane) piece of language wheeled out before a nervous world.

In essence, to be bellicose means you’re a bit punchy. Well, when I say punchy, I mean almost continuously choosing fight rather than flight. Merriam-Webster defines it as being inclined to start quarrels or wars. Well, I suppose the world may or may not rest easier depending on how far one sees the gulf between those two outcomes. A quarrel might very well involve some name calling and hair pulling. Put that way, a tendency to being quarrelsome might be preferable if the only other defined alternative is all out war.

What then lies between the two points of aggression on the sliding scale of bellicosity? Fisticuffs? A skirmish? A brawl? All most unappealing eventualities, except perhaps to a writer. These words, redolent of the good old days of no-holds-barred pugilism, have an undeniably romantic quality to them. On the streets of Dickens’ London, amid the squalor and pools of cheap gin, any of these three descriptors for eruptive violence would seem quite at home.

The language of escalation can be a quite subjective thing. Let’s say we start with a brouhaha. We could follow that up with an imbroglio, where confusion becomes a factor in the likelihood of physical confrontation. Flap and spat are broadly speaking the same thing, though spat stands as the more argumentative option. Ruction and rumpus, both equally fine words, are divided by a sense of the possible and the actual; a ruction feels similar to a rumbling, whereas a rumpus feels like something already underway. And a fracas is simply a more writerly way of describing of an altercation. Uproar is of course most often regarded as being the reaction rather than the action, until of course it’s taking place in the corner of your sitting room.

Yet even after exploring the lexicon of intemperate behavior, and having established brawling as a notional middle point between quarrel and war there remains some distance – at least metaphorically – between an inclination to quarrel and the far end of the scale of potential catastrophe, namely war itself. Perhaps the choice of bellicose is more cunning than it first appears, and no doubt entirely conscious on the part of a press corps whose employment of the word arguably had its previous peak at the time of the Cuban missile crisis. The idea of a quarrel, or bellicose-lite, is less to do with sound and fury than it is protracted whining and a bit of a bad temper. In this case the use of bellicose intimates that despite the presence of a nuclear arsenal, the essence of the threat is really more along the lines of hair pulling than any sort of impending cataclysm. That said, wonderful language will be no consolation to any of us if the end of everything is waiting just round the corner. But if we do come though this crisis unscathed, at least one word will have made a welcome reappearance on the world stage, and we’ll all no doubt be bibulous as a result.

Patrick

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