weapon of mass destruction / conventional weapon

Most people became aware of the term weapon of mass destruction during the run up to the first Gulf War in 1990–91. And it again entered the public consciousness during the second war with Iraq which started twelve years later. Both times Saddam Hussein had been thought to have developed these nuclear, biological, and chemical weapons, an assessment that was only correct the first time. But the term is much older than widespread public awareness of it.

The term weapon of mass destruction dates to at least 28 December 1937 when the London Times used the term.

Who can think without horror of what another widespread war would mean, waged as it would be with all the new weapons of mass destruction?

But this original reference is to aerial bombing of cities, which had become a reality that year in the Spanish Civil War, chemical weapons which had made their appearance in the First World War, and other modern weaponry.

It wasn’t until after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, that the phrase became associated with nuclear weapons. From the New York Times of 16 November 1945:

The agreement goes as far as is possible in the present state of the world to avert the further use of atomic bombs and similar weapons of mass destruction.

By the 1960s, the phrase had been adopted by the arms control community as a term of art to refer to those weapons they meant to reduce or eliminate.

The counterpart to a weapon of mass destruction is a conventional weapon. The use of conventional applied to non-nuclear warfare is what is known as a retronym, a term coined when the previous words have been rendered inadequate by the advance of technology. Conventional weapon also appears shortly after World War II with an appearance in the Zanesville Signal (Ohio) on 2 July 1946:

There is no tendency on the part of anybody here to question that the plutonium bomb is a vastly more dangerous weapon in the hands of an enemy than any conventional weapon.


Sources:

“plutonium, n.2,” Oxford English Dictionary, third edition, September 2006.

“weapon, n.,” Oxford English Dictionary, Draft Additions, Dec. 2004.

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