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Davis, California

Saturday, April 20, 2024

Column: What’s in a word?

On Nov. 28, 2011, UC President Mark Yudof carried forward the request of Chancellor Katehi to form a task force. Chaired by Cruz Reynoso, former associate justice of the state Supreme Court, the charge of the task force is to “…examine the UC Davis Police Department’s use of pepper spray on protesters.” At the time of writing this column, the task force hasn’t released its findings yet. What interests me before-the-fact is the intentionality behind the term “task force.”

In the introduction to his book Going Nucular, UC Berkeley linguist Geoffrey Nunberg asserts that “words usually have something to hide.” I don’t know that “task force” has something to hide so much that it’s been used so frequently in so many settings that its original purpose is lost at the bottom of a sock drawer somewhere.

As it turns out, “task force” is not the antiquated term I thought it to be. Its use dates back barely 70 years to 1941, when the U.S. Navy coined it. What sparse histories there are of the term suggest that it was a way to enhance “operational flexibility.” In this way, the original usage describes a particular naval formation with a single task or goal. Today the U.S. Navy has over a hundred task forces, many of which are organized into smaller “task groups” and “task units,” each composed of “task elements.” NATO has also adopted the terminology into its standards.

While it’s not at all clear when the term came into popular usage, the linguistic trail seems to indicate that the military term transmuted into government use by way of the Department of Defense. What’s more interesting about the term is that it served to edge out another term used frequently in military and government settings — ad hoc.

Most contexts that now use “task force” would probably have used “ad hoc” prior to the 1940s. It’s not hard to see why. In Latin, “ad hoc” translates to “for this.” As a term, it’s far more direct than “task force” in its etymology. When you wanted to assemble a group to do something, it made sense for decades to assemble it “ad hoc,” for whatever “this” you had. “Ad hoc” is still in use today, but with a very different connotation. Now the word reflects a sense of improvised, makeshift or spontaneous action, like it does in wireless ad hoc networks.

All of this makes me wonder why the Reynoso Task Force is named so. I think the decision to name it, if ever there was a deliberate decision, is symptomatic of the cultural shift away from “ad hoc” and toward “task force.”

One reason why “task force” is so widely used could be precisely because of its military history. That is to say, not only is “ad hoc” now known for lacking planning, but “task force” has this extra sense of discipline pegged to it from the naval etymology. In some ways, “task force” is still very much a part of the military discourse from which it arose.

To pre-empt a takeaway that seems obvious, I don’t think this means there’s a kind of collusion between the military past of “task force” and the UC Davis police. Rather, the military past of “task force” reflects an appeal to authority and organization somewhat absent in the aftermath of the pepper spraying. In other words, where “ad hoc” reflected a goal, “task force” benefits from an actor and a goal.

Or you could argue that all this is just semantics. But I would err on the side of Nunberg, who writes: “The worst offense you can commit against language is to fail to listen to it too closely.”

If RAJIV NARAYAN is guilty of committing Montaigne’s cardinal sin of writing “words about words,” feel free to write words about words about words to him at rrnarayan@ucdavis.edu.


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