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In the October 2015 issue of National Geographic I read on page 43 (page 42 in the printed edition)

[…] Berger invited more than 30 young scientists […] for a blitzkrieg fossil fest lasting six weeks.

A German friend was astonished and revulsed about the usage of the Nazi wartime word blitzkrieg in such a non-historical context. I am therefore asking about the meaning and appropriate usage of blitzkrieg and its implied connotations.

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    It was probably inappropriate, due to ignorance. – Hot Licks Oct 23 '15 at 13:16
  • @HotLicks I wanted to clarify this here, so your probably is too vague. – Walter Oct 23 '15 at 13:18
  • Well, the context is a bit unclear, in terms of how the line was positioned in the article and what the nature of this "fest" is, so there could be some justification for the term. And one suspects that the author was thinking of the term "blitz", which is a perfectly good word alone, but pulled "blitzkrieg" out of his memory, so it was something of a "stupid mistake". – Hot Licks Oct 23 '15 at 13:46
  • the only place it is appropriate is right before "Bop" – USER_8675309 Oct 23 '15 at 14:28
  • Assuming that the word "fest" is not usualy known by non-native English, the German listener was surprised by the combination of the two german words "blitzkrieg" and "fest" (as in Munich Octoberfest). Alone, both terms are neutral. Together, they may evoke some "Nazi party". – Graffito Oct 23 '15 at 16:42
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"Blitzkrieg" is German for "lightning warfare". It was a term used to describe a particular set of tactics the Germans used in World War 2 involving very rapid advance across enemy territory using tanks and aircraft.

In U.S. English, people sometimes use "blitzkrieg" to refer to any attempt to accomplish some task quickly. Like, "We're planning a blitzkrieg of advertising on the west coast once the new product is released." Note "blitzkrieg" is a noun. English speakers sometimes use "blitz" as either a noun or a verb. I don't know what proper German usage is there.

In general, it's pretty common to use military metaphors in non-military contexts. We talk about "attacking" a problem of any sort, "targeting" specific opponents or competitors, conducting a "campaign", starting a "war on poverty", etc. Whether such language is inappropriate or offensive is a matter of opinion. Most people don't think it is and use it routinely. If you personally find it offensive, the question of what to do about it is a matter of how important the issue is to you, I guess.

(There was a big deal in the U.S. a few years ago where some Democrats criticized Republicans for using such language, claiming that it encouraged political violence, to which some Republicans replied by pointing out examples where Democrats had used the exact same language. Of course that sort of thing goes on in politics all the time.)

  • I think a lot of (younger) people mistakenly believe that "blitzkrieg" is the adjective form of "blitz", or some such. And while I don't consider the word personally offensive to me, I do feel it is a "loaded" term which should be avoided, as it cause uncomfortable feelings in others. – Hot Licks Oct 23 '15 at 13:48
  • Interestingly enough, the full passage reads: Berger invited more than 30 young scientists, some with the ink still wet on their Ph.D.’s, to Johannesburg from some 15 countries, for a blitzkrieg fossil fest lasting six weeks. To some older scientists who weren’t involved, putting young people on the front line just to rush the papers into print seemed rash. The use of front line in the subsequence sentence seems to support your idea that the writer was using some deliberate metaphor. Whether such usage goes outside the bounds of good taste, though, is up for debate, as @HotLicks says. – J.R. Oct 23 '15 at 16:31
  • @J.R. - In that context, where the analogy is reasonably direct, the use of the term is perhaps justified, since it fits fairly well. One would still use it with some trepidation, however. – Hot Licks Oct 23 '15 at 17:08
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To place the source quotation in greater context, here's a link to the National Geographic article:

http://news.nationalgeographic.com/2015/09/150910-human-evolution-change/

I would agree with the posts that point to military terminology generally creeping into non-military vernacular over time; and that US speakers, overall, are sufficiently removed from the horrors of World War II that some terms will have connotations that do not seem to match the accepted or usual meanings in Europe.

However, I'm also surprised that this term was applied here, especially from a periodical which exceeded my expectations for professional journalism in every regard throughout my life.

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1. Language differences

The words 'blitz' and 'blitzkrieg' are synonymous in English but not in German. In fact English speakers use 'blitz' as an abbreviation for 'blitzkrieg' (which it is not the case in German). That is an important factor to consider when a German person reads the article. In German, a blitz fossil fest and a blitzkrieg fossil fest would have different connotations. The former would be a lighting [fast] event but the latter would be a bombing raid.

2. The difference between US and UK sensitivities

In Britain we (or our antecedents) suffered the direct consequences of The Blitz whereas in the US they didn't. I'm sure that few Americans would use 9/11 as a source of semi-humorous phrases -- at least not in a serious periodical.

Aside from the historical aspects, the sound of the word 'blitz' has a certain innocence to English ears because of a childhood association with Blitzen, a reindeer in the famous Christmas song Rudolph the Red-nosed Reindeer. Few English-speaking people actually know what either word literally means (i.e. lightning). My guess is that even fewer could translate the word Blitzkrieg or say what it referred to.

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    I don't want to get into an argument about it, obviously what offends someone can be highly subjective. But Americans to this day routinely use "Pearl Harbor" to mean "something bad that happened without warning". So I don't think the issue is whether the person's own country suffered. At least there's more to it than that. – Jay Oct 23 '15 at 14:01
  • There is a difference. A serious journal might write for example, "We must avoid another 9/11" but that is not a lighthearted usage. Would you say, "Let's 9/11 these fossils" or "let's Pearl harbour this paperwork"/ Maybe you would -- I don't know. – chasly from UK Oct 23 '15 at 14:12
  • @chaslyfromUK - I'm not sure your analogy holds. What would "9/11" or "Pearl harbour" mean as a verb in that context, and how would that meaning relate back to the original events? Moreover, the U.S. civilian population might not have "suffered the direct consequences of The Blitz" as you allege, but we still lost over 400,000 servicemen – enough that many folks here still regard the war quite solemnly even to this day. I'm not sure that Shreeve's use of the word can be explained by mere "differences between US and UK sensitivities." – J.R. Oct 23 '15 at 16:22
  • No-one, least of all me, would devalue the deaths of US soldiers. However I don't think you should minimise the effect of the Blitz on the british psyche. It was an 8 month sustained series of bombing raids on heavily populated British cities that destroyed over a million homes in London alone. The heavy casualties were almost entirely non-combatant civilians. We expected to lose soldiers and we did - this was an attack on civilians. Let's not be crass and trade numbers of dead. – chasly from UK Oct 23 '15 at 16:39
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    It's my understanding that "the blitz" and "blitzkrieg" two different things. "Blitz" simply means "lightning", and was applied to the bombing of London, among other things, while "blitzkrieg" means "lightning war", and was a specific form of warfare employed by the Nazis against the other nations of Europe. – Hot Licks Oct 23 '15 at 17:11

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