RIP, "blowback"

We're in the process of losing a really good word: "blowback."

How are we losing it? A lot of writers think it's a pretty cool word, and writers like to use cool words. Unfortunately, they don't know what it means. They think it means "reaction."

It doesn't. It's a word invented by CIA operatives to describe the negative, often surprising, consequences that rebound on an actor because of things that actor does in pursuit of their own objectives. It's a very special type of reaction. Here're some examples:


  • In the 1970s the Jimmy Carter administration decided to cause the Soviet Union a little trouble in its client state, Afghanistan. Through their friends the Inter-Services Intelligence (ISI) organization in Pakistan they began to fund, train, and arm the mujahideen that opposed the then-Communist government of Afghanistan. The increases in the violence directed at the government provoked the Soviet Union to invade. When it appeared the Soviets were winning, the US arranged for the mujahideen to have Stinger anti-aircraft missiles. These missiles turned the tide, and the Soviet Union eventually left Afghanistan, much weakened. During the ensuing period of warlord rule in Afghanistan, the ISI assisted a group calling itself the Taliban ("the students") to get started, a group that eventually took control of much of the country. Osama bin Laden and his group of followers were on the CIA payroll during this period. So the CIA enters into a campaign to weaken the Soviet Union, and 20-some years later the twin towers have come down, Stinger missiles from Afghanistan were being fired at American helicopters in Iraq, NATO military personnel were stepping on explosive devices placed by Taliban militants, and Pakistan is riven by conflict with its own Islamist elements, including in the ISI. Now that's some "blowback." Good work, Jimmy!

  • Also in the 1970s the government of Israel tolerated and encouraged militant Islamists to organize, as a counterweight in Gaza to the secular Palestine Liberation Organization (Fatah). Mossad even helped militants to disrupt Fatah events. The Islamists eventually became Hamas, were elected the government of Gaza, and now Israel has a real problem on its hands. That's "blowback."

  • Just last week a group of militant Islamists attacked a compound in Benghazi where the US Ambassador lived, and killed him and three others. The Ambassador was a major figure in the "rebellion" against Muammar Qaddafi's government. US leaders like Hillary Clinton were shocked and horrified that a group of people the US had armed and funded, a group who have a major goal of ridding Arab countries of "infidels," would commit acts of violence against US officials. But that's "blowback."

But here's how "blowback" is being mis-used.

  • In an Associated Press (AP) story by Ken Thomas and Jim Kuhnhenn, candidate for the US presidency Mitt Romney has some 'splainin' to do about some remarks he made in a video he didn't know was being made when he was talking to some rich folks. Many thought his marks were outrageous, and he was suffering severe criticism for them. The headline? "Romney tries to contain blowback from 'victims' remark." No, that's not "blowback." That's just reaction.

  • In "Whatever happened to 'blowback'?" a screed dated September 15th in Powerline, which appears to be an anti-Democrat and anti-Islamic blog, Paul Mirengoff says blowback is "when those aggrieved (or even just offended) by assertive American action abroad respond by attacking American interests and killing Americans." Well, no. That's just reaction/response, and naturally so, entirely predictable. (Apparently Mirengoff thinks folks treated to American drone strikes should just say, "Oh, that's just America again, being assertive.") He goes on to say that the killing of Ambassador Christopher Stevens was in response for the US's drone-killing of Abu Yahya al-Libi (the name al-Libi means "from Libya"), and so was "blowback." No again. It was reaction, a vengeful one, but there's absolutely no irony involved, which is often the case with "blowback." There is, of course, an element of blowback in these killings: in the fact that the killers had been armed and trained by US operatives, while Qaddafi, who they were set up to overthrow, actively suppressed them.

  • On August 31st, NBC reported that American Muslims were being criticized for holding a "jumah," or Friday prayer, in a park in Charlotte, NC, "as part of an effort to mobilize Muslims and get them engaged in political discourse." They were picketed by a group calling itself "Operation Save America," whose media release said "Hatred toward the God of the Bible (Jesus) is the great unifier of abortion, homosexuality, and Islam." Whew! Headline: "Muslims hosting events to coincide with Charlotte DNC face blowback." Blowhard, maybe, but not blowback.

  • In Pollstar on September 20th, we find that the bankrupt promoter of a Prague music festival Punx Not Dead is in trouble with Czech ticketing company TicketPortal. People are complaining over some tickets they can't refund because PND gave them no money. Or something. The headline is "More Blowback from Punx." Now that's just silly. People complaining is not "blowback."


All right, that's enough. It pains me to see our wonderful language abused like this.

We lose good words all the time, because people mis-use them, and the mis-use becomes more popular than the more useful use. When "blowback" is used to name something that is blowback, it makes a useful distinction among the different types of reaction, and zeroes in on a particular type. When "blowback" is used to mean "reaction," it does nothing the word "reaction" couldn't do.

Not that we can stop it, no matter how we try. We may, though, have to come up with a new word to describe the reactions that used to be called "blowback."

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