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Blowing brass wind instrument on table

Green on blue, unboxing, and brass: on the radar in September 2012

The origin of green on blue

The phrase green on blue has been used with tragic frequency in recent weeks to describe attacks by Afghan soldiers on Coalition troops in Afghanistan. Green on blue is modeled after an earlier phrase, blue on blue, referring to inadvertent clashes between members of the same side in an armed conflict (also known as fratricide, or by the oxymoronic synonym friendly fire). Blue on blue originated in the British military in the early 1980s, but has now spread around the world, and even moved beyond the military sphere to describe accidental shootings among police officers.

What are the blue and green referred to in these phrases? It doesn’t have anything to do with uniforms. The formulation is based on the standardized military symbols used to indicate different forces on maps. In this system, the color blue is used for friendly forces, red for hostile forces, green for neutral forces, and yellow for unknown forces. Thus, blue-on-blue shootings are incidents in which members of the same force fire on one another.

What green on blue means is a bit more complicated. In addition to Afghanistan, green on blue has also been used in the context of Iraq; US General Raymond Odierno referred to the threat of “green-on-blue attacks” by Iraqi security forces on US personnel in Iraq in 2009 (Politico, 28 May). It would seem that in the context of the Iraq and Afghanistan, the local security forces are regarded as neutral, or green: not hostile, but not fully allies, either.

Other words on our radar this month:


On September 6, British Labour Party leader Ed Miliband unveiled his party’s new agenda, declaring “We need to care about predistribution as well as redistribution.”  Predistribution, according to the speech, involves investing in measures to improve work opportunities for disadvantaged people, not merely providing them with benefits and services. The coinage of this term has been attributed to the American political scientist Jacob Hacker, but if it enters our lexicon it will have Miliband to thank.


The day before Ed Miliband’s speech, on the other side of the Atlantic, another politician’s choice of words attracted attention. At the Democratic National Convention, former US president Bill Clinton said of Republican VP candidate Paul Ryan’s attacks on Obama, “that takes some brass.” This turn of phrase garnered wild applause, and was interpreted by many commentators as a coy shortening of the phrase brass balls meaning ‘chutzpah’ or (more literally) ‘cojones’. But was it? It’s true that Clinton had a mischievous gleam in his eyes after delivering the line. On the other hand, the OED shows that the word brass on its own has been used to mean ‘effrontery, impudence, unblushingness’ since at least 1682 (consider the various meanings of the word brazen); brass balls, in contrast, only dates from the mid-20th century.


The Apple iPhone 5 went on sale this month, loosing a new spate of unboxing videos upon the Internet. ‘Unboxing’ in this context refers to the painstakingly recorded process of removing an electronic gadget from its original packaging. We’ve found references to videos and blog posts documenting unboxings starting in 2006. Six years later, there are over half a million YouTube videos devoted to the subject.

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