The term “weapons of mass destruction” is often used to describe weapons that are capable of killing large numbers of people in a very short amount of time. These weapons have been used throughout history, and their use has led to many changes in the world.

Weapons of Mass Destruction are weapons that have the potential to cause large-scale death and destruction. These weapons can be classified as Biological, Chemical, or Nuclear.

How Weapons of Mass Destruction Helped Shape Our Vocabulary

Ground Zero: The first atomic bomb was detonated at Trinity Site on July 16, 1945, leaving a lasting mark on the New Mexico desert and a slew of new terms and phrases in its wake. (Alamy/Ernesto Burciaga)

Many new terms entered the English when the first atomic bombs were detonated on Japan, ending World War II. The atomic weapon, commonly known as the “A-bomb,” was first and foremost. The headline in the Daily Mirror on August 8, 1945 read, “Jap Radio Says Evacuate—’Ware A-Bombs.” The hydrogen bomb, which fused the nuclei of different hydrogen isotopes to unleash enormous quantities of energy, was given the acronym “H-bomb” a few years later. After the bombs of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the phrase “radiation sickness” became popular, referring to the disease produced by exposure to harmful amounts of radiation. Thousands of Japanese people were ill as a result of the bombings. Industrial nuclear catastrophes, such as the 1986 meltdown at the Soviet Union’s Chernobyl facility in Ukraine and the 2011 earthquake and tsunami that destroyed the Fukushima Daiichi plant on Japan’s east coast, have caused the majority of instances of radiation illness since World War II.

Some nuclear-related phrases that have gained widespread use in the last 70 years are new meanings of earlier ones. Thus, the term “chain reaction,” which was first used to describe a chemical reaction in the early twentieth century, was given to the self-perpetuating process in which uranium’s explosive characteristics grow stronger and stronger. “With more and more students disagreeing to the new rules, there was a virtual chain reaction of protest,” as in “With more and more students objecting to the new policies, there was a virtual chain reaction of protest.”

Another transmogrified term is “firestorm,” which was first used in the late 1500s to describe a windstorm that followed a blaze. After 1945, it also came to mean a nuclear detonation. At least two additional words that were employed in connection to the atomic bomb at the time were subsequently used metaphorically. The radioactive waste following a nuclear explosion is known as fallout. However, within a few years, the term was being used to describe the consequences of a dispute. For example, “the repercussions from Republican-Democratic squabbles may mean no new legislation will be passed,” in today’s jargon. Ground zero was initially used to refer to the area directly underneath a detonated nuclear weapon, but it has now come to refer to any kind of catastrophic explosion. It has been most often used to the former site of New York City’s World Trade Center, which was destroyed in the September 11 terrorist attacks, since 2001. Today, the word has been broadened to encompass a concentrated location where a major event or activity, actual or imagined, may take place.

Since the 14th century, the term “enrichment” has been used to describe any improvement in quality, although it has only been used to uranium since the 1940s. Uranium 238 (U-238), the most prevalent type of the mineral, contains three more neutrons in its nucleus than uranium 235. Although U-235 has much more explosive potential, it accounts for less than 1% of all uranium produced. Enrichment is the process of enriching uranium to create a greater concentration of U-235, which is typically done using centrifuges. When the mineral is somewhat enhanced, from 3 to 5%, it is powerful enough to power a variety of nuclear reactors. Making medicinal isotopes may require enrichment to 20%, while weapons-grade uranium used in most bombs is enriched to 85 to 90%.

With regard to nuclear power, a variety of additional names have emerged. The term was first used to describe the nucleus, or center, of a celestial object in the nineteenth century, then to describe the core of a living cell or an atom, and finally, in the mid-twentieth century, to describe a nuclear weapon. To go nuclear, therefore, implies to obtain nuclear weapons, but it may also imply to take the most drastic steps imaginable, with possibly catastrophic consequences, or to get very enraged. Although the term “nuclear” may still refer to anything central (as in a nuclear family—mother, father, and children), it is now most often used to refer to weapons.

The term “nuclear deterrence” was used in the early 1950s to describe the notion that a nuclear strike would be so devastating that the fear of one is a good method to prevent, or deter, violent conflicts between countries. The term “nuclear option” refers to a drastic measure that seems to have first appeared in politics in the 1970s. “The Senate majority leader is threatening to use the nuclear option and bring the matter to the entire Senate for a vote,” for example.

A dirty nuke has been defined as a nuclear bomb with significant radioactive fallout since the mid-1950s, although the acronym nuke first emerged in verb form—to nuke—in the 1950s and originally meant to strike or destroy using nuclear weapons. It was also used to denote exacting vengeance. Then, in the 1980s, when the microwave oven became a popular household item, nuking evolved to imply “microwaving cooking,” a much milder connotation than its earlier connotations.


Fighting Words from War, Rebellion, and Other Combative Capers, a new and substantially enlarged version of Christine Ammer’s book, is now available as a Kindle e-book.

How Weapons of Mass Destruction Helped Shape Our Vocabulary

The medico legal responses to weapon of mass destruction terror incidents are the actions taken by law enforcement, medical professionals and emergency responders during a terrorist attack involving weapons of mass destruction.

Frequently Asked Questions

What are the benefits of weapons of mass destruction?

Weapons of mass destruction are a type of weapon that can be used to cause widespread destruction and usually have a devastating effect on the target.

What is a weapon of mass effect?

A weapon of mass effect is a weapon that has the potential to destroy entire planets.

What comes to mind when you hear the expression weapons of mass destruction?

Weapons of mass destruction are weapons that have the ability to cause large-scale destruction on a global scale, including but not limited to nuclear weapons.

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