“Boots on the ground” and how vocabulary impacts policy

As writers, we always say that “words matter.” Without words, what would we do?

When the U.S. Democratic presidential candidates debated over the weekend, this concept made an appearance on center stage. Former Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley related the story of a woman he spoke to who had a son in the military. She told him that she wished that politicians would stop talking about “boots on the ground” because that’s not what her son is.

Unfortunately, it is a phrase that has permeated the political and media culture. It’s hard to get rid of the term, but with a renewed focus on the dangers our military faces, chances are that at least some of our leaders will make the adaptation.

When you’re writing, think not just about how well the words you use may communicate your ideas and vision, but also how others might perceive it. Although we’re in a society that frequently takes offense to just about everything, we can and should do more to be smart in our word selection.

Of course, in the political sphere, words often get used to drive a certain point of view.

Think about some examples:

  • “boots on the ground” vs. “U.S. soldiers”
  • “pro-life” vs “anti-choice”
  • “estate tax” vs “death tax”

Simply establishing the vocabulary for a debate can make a difference.