Word Of The Month: Weapon of Mass Destruction

The word (actually it is a noun phrase) of the month is:

Weapon of Mass Destruction, n., a nuclear, biological, or chemical weapon. Sometimes radiological weapons are included in the definition. Also WMD. In use since at least 1937. Pre-1945 uses of the term referred to conventional weapons of great destructive power, such as the bombing of cities by aircraft, and chemical weapons.

Weapons of mass destruction have been all over the news lately. The United States is gearing up for war in Iraq because Saddam Hussein continues to develop them. The United Nations has sent inspectors to Iraq to ensure that he does not, in fact, possess such weapons. And in the midst of this, North Korea announces that it has a nuclear weapons program, in violation of agreements it has entered into with other nations.

Presented here are a number of terms associated with weapons of mass destruction.

ABM, n., abbreviation for Anti-Ballistic Missile, a missile designed to shoot down other missiles. It is often used in reference to the 1972 ABM Treaty between the United States and the Soviet Union that severely restricted development and deployment of ABM systems. Since 1963.

A-Bomb, n., nuclear weapon, especially. a fission-only weapon. It is an abbreviation for Atomic bomb. From 1945.

Alpha Radiation, n., a type of nuclear radiation consisting of a helium nucleus (2 protons and 2 neutrons) stripped of its electrons. Alpha particles are the most damaging of the types of ionizing radiation to the human body, but the least dangerous as they cannot penetrate the skin and only travel a few centimeters through the air. Generally, alpha radiation is only dangerous when the radioactive substance is swallowed or inhaled. The term was coined by Ernest Rutherford in 1899.

Anthrax, n., disease, primarily of sheep and cattle but that can infect humans, caused by Bacillus anthracis. It is often considered as a biological warfare agent, although it is readily treatable with common antibiotics. From the Latin, after the Greek word for coal, so-called because of the black pustules that develop on the skin of those infected. It has been in use since 1398 in the sense of any dark, malignant pustule; since 1876 in the sense of the specific disease caused by B. anthracis.

Beta Radiation, n., a type of nuclear radiation consisting of an electron. Beta particles have greater penetrating power than alpha particles, but are less damaging to living tissue. The term was coined in 1899 by Ernest Rutherford.

Binary Weapon, n., a type of chemical weapon consisting of two, less-toxic chemicals that are mixed to produced the chemical agent. Contrary to popular conception, binary weapons are not more effective than the less sophisticated unitary weapons, but they are safer to store, handle, and dispose of. From at least 1973.

Biological Weapon, n., a device that uses pathogens or toxins to cause harm to people, plants, or animals; a pathogen or toxin intended for such use. From 1946. Biologic weapon appears as early as 1933. Bacteriological weapon is used in the same sense from 1925.

Chemical Weapon, n., a device that uses toxic chemicals to cause harm to people, animals, or equipment; a chemical agent intended for such use. From 1920.

Conventional Weapon, n., any weapon other than a nuclear, biological, chemical, or radiological weapon.

Dirty Bomb, n., 1) a nuclear weapon specifically designed to maximize the release of long-lived radioactive isotopes (fallout), 2) a radiological weapon. From 1961 in the first sense, 1993 in the second.

Dual-Use, adj., used to describe equipment and material that can be used to produce weapons of mass destruction but which also has legitimate, peaceful uses. Since 1989.

Ebola, n., a filovirus that causes an acute and lethal hemorrhagic fever. Ebola is sometimes speculated upon as a potential biological agent, although no one has been reported as having weaponized it. Since 1977. The virus takes its the name of the Ebola River in Zaire, site of a 1976 outbreak. The Soviets successfully weaponized the related Marburg virus, named for Marburg, Germany, the location of a 1967 outbreak in a laboratory.

Enrich, v., to increase the percentage of Uranium-235 in a sample of uranium ore. Naturally occurring uranium is over 99% Uranium-238, which is not fissionable. To use uranium as a fuel or in a weapon, the percentage of fissionable U-235 must be increased to the point where a nuclear reaction can be sustained. Low-enriched uranium is used in most commercial reactors. Highly enriched uranium is used in naval reactors and some specialized facilities. Very highly enriched uranium is weapons grade (see below). From 1945.

Fallout, n., radioactive debris from a nuclear detonation that is then deposited over a large area downwind of ground zero. From 1950.

Gamma Radiation, n., a type of nuclear radiation consisting of electromagnetic emissions with a very short wavelength. Gamma rays have greater penetrating power than alpha or beta particles, but are less damaging. Term coined in 1903 by Ernest Rutherford.

Ground Zero, n., the point on the earth’s surface at or, in the case of an airburst, directly below the detonation of a nuclear weapon (1946); the site in lower Manhattan that had been occupied by the World Trade Center towers that were destroyed on 11 September 2001.

H-Bomb, n., a thermonuclear weapon. It is an abbreviation for hydrogen bomb. From 1950.

IAEA, n., Abbreviation for International Atomic Energy Agency. The U.N. organization, headquartered in Vienna, responsible for nuclear safeguards under the 1970 Non-Proliferation Treaty and for nuclear weapons inspections in Iraq. From 1956.

ICBM, n., Abbreviation for Inter-Continental Ballistic Missile. An ICBM is a missile with global range, usually armed with a nuclear warhead. From 1955.

MIRV, n., Abbreviation for Multiple Independently targetable Reentry Vehicles. MIRVs are multiple warheads carried by a missile that are capable of striking different targets. From 1967. MIRV is also used as a verb meaning to arm a missile with such warheads.

Mustard, n., dichlorodiethylsulphide, a colorless to pale yellow, oily liquid used as a chemical warfare agent. Mustard is a vesicant, causing severe chemical burns on the skin and eyes and, if the aerosol is inhaled, in the lungs. It is so called because of its color and garlicky smell. Mustard was first used by the German army at Ypres in 1917. It is also known as Yperite from Ypres and as Yellow Cross (German, WWI) and H (US), from the markings used on shell casings containing the agent.

NBC, adj., US military abbreviation for Nuclear, Biological, & Chemical.

Nerve Agent, n., a class of chemical weapons. Cholinesterase inhibitors, nerve agents block the action of that enzyme at nerve synapses, resulting in paralysis of the parasympathetic nervous system and eventual death through suffocation. The Germans first developed nerve agents before and during WWII. The term nerve gas has been in use since 1940, although technically none of them are gases.

Neutron Bomb, n, nuclear weapon designed to minimize blast effects while maximizing emission of neutrons. The intent of the American weapons designers was to irradiate invading Soviet tank crews while minimizing collateral damage to the West German countryside. This type of nuclear weapon was officially designated as an Enhanced Radiation Weapon. From 1960; enhanced radiation from 1976.

Nuclear Weapon, n., a weapon that produces its destructive power through the rapid and uncontrolled release of energy from the fission or fusion of atomic nuclei. From 1945.

OPCW, n., Abbreviation for Organization for the Prohibition of Chemical Weapons, the international organization, headquartered in The Hague, charged with overseeing implementation of the 1993 Chemical Weapons Convention.

Plague, n., disease caused by Yersinia pestis, also known as bubonic or pneumonic plague. The word is also used more generally for any lethal, communicable disease, a pestilence. Plague is often considered as a potential biological warfare agent, although it is readily treatable with common antibiotics. From the Old French plage, meaning a blow, stroke, or wound. This is also the original English sense, especially a blow of divine retribution, as in the ten plagues of Egypt. Plague, meaning divine retribution, has been In English since 1382, the pestilence sense since 1548, and used for the specific disease since 1601.

Plutonium, n., a transuranic, radioactive metal that is often used as the fissionable material in nuclear weapons. The name was coined in 1942 by its discoverer, Glenn Seaborg. It is named after the planet; neptunium and plutonium follow uranium on the periodic table, just as the planets Neptune and Pluto follow Uranus in the solar system.

Proliferation, n., the increase in the number of states possessing nuclear weapons. From 1965.  Also in use is nonproliferation, the prevention of such an increase, especially by diplomatic means or in context of the 1968 Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), and counterproliferation, the prevention of such an increase through the threat or use of force (1993). Proliferation is also sometimes called as horizontal proliferation, to distinguish it from vertical proliferation the increase in size and sophistication of arsenals in existing nuclear weapon states (1989).

Radiation, n., particles or electromagnetic energy emitted as the result of nuclear decay, fission, or fusion. From the Latin. In use since 1570 to denote visible light emitted by a radiant body, since 1896 in the nuclear sense.

Radiological Weapon, n., a conventional bomb jacketed with radioactive material with the intent that the material would be spread by the detonation, creating a continuing health risk and material disposal problem.

Ricin, n., toxin found in castor beans. Ricin has been used as a biological agent in assassination attempts. Since 1896; from plant’s Latin nomenclature, Ricinus communis.

Sarin, n., Isopropoxy-methyl-phosphoryl-flouride, a nerve agent. In 1945, the Allies gave it its military nomenclature of GB (G = Germany, B = second nerve agent). The name sarin is from a German acronym coined in 1938 by Gerhard Schrader after the names of individuals involved in the discovery: Schrader, Ambros, Rüdriger, and van der Linde. Iraq used sarin in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq War. The Japanese cult Aum Shinrikyo used an impure form of the agent in its 1995 attack on the Tokyo subway.

Smallpox, n., disease caused by Variola major. The name is from the small size of the pustules that form on the skin. From 1518. The disease was eradicated in 1980. Samples of the virus were legally retained in the United States and Russia and probably illegally at other locations. The Soviet Union illegally weaponized smallpox following its eradication.

Soman, n., Pinacoloxy-methyl-phosphoryl-fluoride, a nerve agent. The name comes from its German designation, coined in 1944. The significance of the name soman has been lost—unlike the other nerve agents, all Nazi documentation on soman fell into Soviet hands at the war’s end. The Allied military designation was GD (not GC, as that was an existing medical designation for gonorrhea).

Special Weapon, n., US military euphemism for a nuclear weapon.

Tabun, n., Ethyl N,N-dimethyl phosphoramicocyanidate, a chemical nerve agent. The first nerve agent, its discoverer, Gerhard Schrader, coined the name in 1937, allegedly as a meaningless code name. Allied military designation was GA. Iraq used tabun in its war with Iran.

Thermonuclear, adj., denoting a nuclear fusion reaction, one where hydrogen nuclei fuse into helium, releasing energy, as in a hydrogen bomb. The name comes from the large amounts of heat required to initiate the fusion reaction. From 1938 in reference to stars; 1953 for weapons.

Toxin, n., a naturally occurring toxic substance, whether produced by natural means or synthesized in a laboratory. Toxins are classified as biological weapons, but have more in common with chemical weapons than with pathogens. The term has been In use since 1886.

Uranium, n., a chemical element, the heaviest found in nature. Uranium-235 is used as a nuclear fuel and weapons material. Named after the planet Uranus by the element’s discoverer, Martin Heinrich Klaproth, c. 1790.

VX, n., O-ethyl S-2-diisopropylaminoethyl methylphosphonothiolate, a chemical nerve agent. VX was developed by the United States in 1952, based on discoveries made by the British. VX is heavier and less volatile than the G-agents. The name was coined in 1955, allegedly V = venomous and presumably the X = experimental. VX was the only V-series nerve agent developed (the Soviet VR-55 is a VX analog).

Weaponize, v., to make into a weapon, particularly in reference to nuclear, chemical, or biological capability. The verb is also used in the sense of to populate with weapons, as in “to weaponize outer space.” Since at least 1993.

Weapons Grade, adj., applied to fissile material suitable for making nuclear weapons. From 1961. Journalists in 2001-02 have used it for biological agents that have been specially prepared for easy dissemination, although this is not a usage in the biological weapons community. It is sometimes jocularly used to mean something pungent or hot, as in weapons-grade salsa.

Yield, n., the explosive power of a nuclear weapon, usually expressed in kilotons, or the thousands of tons of TNT equivalent. It is sometimes expressed in megatons, or millions of tons of TNT equivalent. The Hiroshima bomb had a yield of about 12 kilotons. A modern strategic warhead would have something like 300 kilotons in yield; a modern tactical weapon would have something around one kiloton.

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