Suzanne Fields

Language matters. President Barack Obama learned that in time to give the command to slay Somali pirates when they threatened imminent death for Capt. Richard Phillips, their American hostage. This was no time to go wobbly, indulge weakness in the knees, or stir a pot of mush. The highly trained Navy sharpshooters were told to shoot to kill. Mission accomplished.

Soldiers and sailors understand the value of straightforward language. Adm. David Farragut captured heavily fortified Mobile Bay, ensuring Union control of the Gulf Coast late in the Civil War, when he signaled to his fleet: "Damn the torpedoes! Full steam ahead!" No nuance there. When Gen. Anthony McAuliffe answered the German demand to surrender his troops at Bastogne in the Battle of the Bulge, there was no mistaking his meaning: "Nuts!"

Most of us figured Mr. Obama would give in to his penchant for euphemism and his confidence in his tap-dancing, reducing a confrontation with piracy on the high seas to a "high-seas contingency operation." The result would be a "man-caused disaster," and what could the SEALs have done with that?

Secretary of State Hillary Clinton compounded fears when she announced that the Obama administration sought "an appropriate 21st-century response." What in the world did she mean? Sending commands on Twitter via BlackBerry? Consulting Facebook profiles of the pirates? A call for Johnny Depp? (Errol Flynn and Douglas Fairbanks Jr. and Sr. are still dead.)

Surely, the creepiest words in the contemporary vernacular, whether describing the behavior of a country or the behavior of a common criminal, are "appropriate" and "inappropriate." A child who eats peas on a knife displays "inappropriate" behavior; a child who uses a knife to cut another child is also guilty of "inappropriate" behavior. Crime is thus reduced to bad manners.

Suzanne Fields

Suzanne Fields is currently working on a book that will revisit John Milton's 'Paradise Lost.'

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