Tuesday, January 18, 2011

Learn to Speak Pentagon, Lesson 1: "We're working that"

From time to time, a blogger or member of the Pentagon press corps will bring public attention to a curious word or turn of phrase frequently employed by military officers and natsec bureaucrats; I'm frankly stunned no one has turned this into a regular feature. The only explanation I can think of is that those of who are habitually exposed to Pentagonese have ceased to find this abuse of the English language either noteworthy or remarkable. I experienced this very phenomenon myself last week when I saw this tweet from Nathan Hodge of the Wall Street Journal:
@nohodge: Pentagonspeak word of the day: "Non-concur." #pentagonese
Wait, what the heck is wrong with that? I thought. And sure, it's a real word, but how often do you hear that one out in the world? In the Pentagon, though, it's totally standard: when you're providing an organizational position on some kind of a staffing action, your options are to concur, concur with comment, or non-concur. Concurrence is basically "agree as written," as you'd imagine, and a non-concurrence suggests that whatever fix you require would substantively change the product. So there you go: non-concur.

Sharon Weinberger teased us with this Danger Room post a couple of years ago; instead of kicking off an entertaining series, her "How to: Speak Pentagon" would stand alone as a one-off. She really nailed it when pointing out "the overuse of metaphors such as 'a bridge too far' or 'the long pole in the tent,'" though I'd broaden it and say "the rampant overuse of idiomatic expressions." This one is insane, and incredibly distracting: it's impossible to have a conversation in the building without hearing about who's going to "get the rose pinned on them," or how we need to focus on the "ten-meter targets," or even -- to cite one that's entered the popular lexicon -- put more "boots on the ground." 

Since none of these press-passers will deliver the goods, I'm going to take up the reins. (See what I did there?) So I'm going to continue Learn to Speak Pentagon as an irregular series, with posts coming as frequently as I can re-civilianize my brain enough to notice the weird expressions. I'm also happy to take suggestions by tweet, comment, or email, though I can always count on a quick swim through the recent DoD transcripts for some fodder. But I don't want to use up all the good stuff in the introductory edition, right? Let's get right to Lesson 1: "We're working that."

working that [wur-king ðæt], v. To have a task under control but not yet completed or prepared for socialization. "Yeah, don't worry, I've got your tasker. We're working it."

This one doesn't jump out at you as being all that different, I know. After all, civilians can work things too, right? But let's be clear: you're never working on something. You're just working it. You know, running down the traps. Making phone calls. Putting slides together. Working it. You work it until you're done drafting a response, and then you have a product. Then you socialize the product. (At which time other people will be working it.) Then you get your comment matrix back, you make your changes, you re-staff, you get your concurs and your non-concurs, you get your leadership chop, and so on. What are you doing? You're working it. The person or organization awaiting your response shouldn't expect to hear any kind of update during this period of time, but they're not worried: after all, you told 'em "we're working that."

Other uses: working a taskerworking that suspenseworking your request


  1. Great post. Military abuse of the language is ripe for commentary.

    But I wanted to add one point. You mention in passing at the end the need to get "command chops". "Chops" are the stamps (rubber or stone) used in China as official "signatures", and are required on any official document. So while the phrase might sound idiosyncratic to western ears, it sounds perfectly normal to someone with time in Asia.


  2. Anyone who talks like that needs to be punched in the dick or vag.

  3. As a Dept. of State Foreign Service Officer (and recent staff college graduate) it's amusing to watch my fellow interagency civilians at AFRICOM sit through briefings with no idea what is being discussed due to their complete ignorance of the Department of Defense Dictionary of Military and Associated Terms (short title: Joint Pub 1-02 or JP 1-02).

    Since they don't know what is a doctrinally acceptable term, they can't stop a meeting to ask what a "BOGSAT" is ( a Bunch Of Guys Sitting Around A Table) known to the rest of us as a 'meeting,' and then call b.s. on the briefer for using a non-doctrinal term.

  4. "running down the traps"

    Is that like the old term, "run the trap lines"?

    Regards  —  Cliff

  5. Funny, recently got tasked to create a cargo pocket cheat sheet for NFGs, working it now.

  6. At the end of the day
    Some things don't change. 😄🔱

  7. At the end of the day
    Some things don't change. 😄🔱

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