By Barry Coulter
Although English has more units in its word-hoard than most languages, there seem to be many concepts that defy one-word definition. So our language goes abroad, and borrows from another language.
Fair enough. That’s what languages do. Words that are incorporated into another language are called loanwords. Every language has them, and English has many.
German has always been a great source of loanwords for the English language. And one German word that has come into especial widespread English use is the word for lightning — “blitz.”
This word should be familiar to everyone as adopted from Blitzkrieg (Lightning War), which, of course, is the method of warfare most identified with German armies in the first half of the 20th century — an offensive concentration of armoured and motorized or mechanized infantry formations with close air support — short, sharp powerful attacks.
Once the military-industrial complexes of the world invented tanks and air forces, this type of warfare quickly followed.
But we can’t really consider “blitz” a proper loanword in the true sense, since “Blitzkrieg” is actually a term that was invented by Western journalists writing about the German invasion of Poland in 1939, and it went on to serve as a sort of shorthand to describe this tactic. The Wehrmacht (German army) never used this term, and considered the method of warfare an evolution of traditional German tactic of Bewegungskrieg (maneuver warfare), deep penetrations and the bypassing of enemy strong points to encircle and destroy enemy forces in a Kesselschlacht (cauldron battle).
And the Battle of Britain in 1940 became known in the English-speaking world as “The Blitz.”
Since then, the word “blitz” has acquired a widespread usage in English that has little to do with the violence and destruction of mechanized warfare. One thinks blitz, and one thinks of a sudden, concentrated effort on a particular activity, generally peaceful. “We want all volunteers to blitz the community, and pass out leaflets about our fundraiser,” for example.
Or think of the City of Cranbrook’s annual winter festival (since 2019), the “Winter Blitzville.”
“Come on down to the Winter Blitzville — it’s going to be fun, fun fun!”
Now, in current English, this usage of blitz is perfectly appropriate. But when you think of it, it’s kind of ironic, considering the original usage of Blitz meant the destruction of a city with the collateral death of inhabitants.
Take the Rotterdam Blitz, which was the bombing of Rotterdam by the Luftwaffe in 1940, during the German invasion of the Netherlands. Almost the entire city centre was destroyed, nearly 900 people were killed and 85,000 were left homeless.
By the way, the invasion of Holland marked the end of a period of low combat activity that followed the invasion of Poland. This season of non-warfare warfare was known as “The Phony War” in English. But the Germans called it the “Sitzkrieg” (the “Sit-down War”), a term that demonstrates the genius for puns that is built into the German language.
Ironies abound in the English use of the word “blitz,” beyond the example cited above (“Come on down to Winter Blitzville! It’s going to be fun, fun, fun — until the bombing starts”).
“Blitz” is an important tactic in North American gridiron football. During a blitz, a higher than usual number of defensive players will rush the opposing quarterback, to try to tackle the quarterback or force him to hurry his pass attempt. Remember, a blitz was originally the ultimate offensive tactic. In football, it’s become an important defensive ploy. *
Also, it strikes me as very ironic that the London-based American football team is called the London Blitz. But they must have chosen this nickname on purpose, referring back to the Battle of Britain.
Now, since the defeat of Nazi Germany, one refers to “Blitzkrieg” as a term specific to its armies. But one can’t deny that the tactic impressed Germany’s WWII enemies, and there is evidence that it was adopted, specifically by the United States military.
“Shock and Awe” (technically known as rapid dominance) is a tactic based on the use of overwhelming power and spectacular displays of force to paralyze the enemy’s perception of the battlefield and destroy their will to fight. It has its antecedents in the Blitzkrieg, was most recently on display 20 years ago and 30 years ago, during the two Gulf Wars against Iraq.
All this military talk aside, blitz can still be boiled down to its essence, which is speed, particularly lightning speed. Consider:
“On Dasher and Dancer and Prancer and Vixen
“Comet and Cupid and Donner and Blitzen …”
Blitzen (sometimes referred to as “Blixam,” which is Dutch for lightning), is the one of Santa’s reindeer who is lightning quick. “Donner,” by the way, is the German word for thunder. The loudest of Santa’s reindeer.
* With all due modesty, in Grade 12 yours truly was Defensive captain of the football team. As such, I was responsible for calling the plays in the huddle. I usually called for a blitz — it seemed the easiest thing to do. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t. But the 1979 Wes-Cen Wildcats became known as a team that you had to be quick off the snap against. We were blitzing all the time!
Barry Coulter is editor of the Cranbrook Townsman.