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noun [plural]

weapons that can kill very large numbers of people

'… when it was learned he [Saddam Hussein] didn't have any nuclear capability, we began to hear a term used so often it became one word, weaponsofmassdestruction.'

Cincinnati Post 7th March 2003

we can now witness the lexicalization of this phrase, which is currently being used as a solid compound with plural agreement

In the context of the current war with Iraq, this term is in regular use by all forms of the media. The four-word phrase weapons of mass destruction (more recently abbreviated to WMD) has been used for several years, but has gained ground considerably in the last six months. Whereas in 1998 the phrase only appeared in 12 online articles of the Guardian newspaper, by 2002 the figure had risen sharply to 862 articles. And so in these first three months of 2003, in the context of heightened discussion on the rights or wrongs of a war with Iraq, we can now witness the lexicalization of this phrase, which is currently being used as a solid compound with plural agreement, e.g. evidence that weaponsofmassdestruction are being built, … claiming that he does not possess any weaponsofmassdestruction ….

Weapons of mass destruction is very much a vogue expression which has had a major productive impact already this year, not just in phrases of related meaning, e.g. weapons of global/catastrophic/total destruction, but as a mechanism for comment, e.g. weapons of indiscriminate destruction, weapons of mass deception/irritation, or with irony in a taxonomy of weapon types, e.g. weapons of bumps and bruises, weapons of nasty scratches and even in spheres not related to war at all, e.g. … first-time novelists aren't such sure-fire weapons of mass entertainment as footballers and movie stars …. As early as 1997, Weapons of Mass Distraction became the title of a TV movie starring Gabriel Byrne and Ben Kingsley about two media moguls.

Background – weaponsofmassdestruction

The lexicalization of noun phrases is an established process of English word formation. Noun + of + noun compounds range from original referents of real world items, (e.g. lily of the valley, bicarbonate of soda) to many established phrases which dictionaries choose to represent in various ways, e.g. cost of living could be listed as a fixed phrase at the noun cost or given a lexical entry of its own, depending on perceptions of lexicalization. Lexicalization of such phrases as a solid compound is less common, usually taking place over an extended period of time, so the fusing together of such a long phrase as weapons of mass destruction is exceptional. As a one-word form this must represent one of the longest examples of a solid compound of this type established to date.

by Kerry Maxwell, author of Brave New Words

This article was first published on 7th April 2003.

Open Dictionary


a form of location that involves the underwater detonation of a bomb which causes sound waves that are picked up by ships

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