Trend Watch


President Obama used the word—with an uncommon pronunciation—during his final State of the Union

Quagmire spiked the evening of January 12th, 2016, after President Barack Obama used the word in his State of the Union address, speaking of the need to exercise caution in foreign affairs:

We also can’t try to take over and rebuild every country that falls into crisis. That’s not leadership; that’s a recipe for quagmire, spilling American blood and treasure that ultimately weakens us. It’s the lesson of Vietnam, of Iraq — and we should have learned it by now.

Quagmire is a word that is often associated with military conflicts in which the invading army becomes bogged down. The word’s meaning and etymology make such use quite logical; not only is a quagmire a bog, or area of soft ground in which it can be difficult to walk, but the word is formed by combining quag (meaning marsh) with mire (a word meaning ‘to cause to stick fast in’).

When used to describe an undesirable military situation, quagmire is frequently found in reference to the involvement of the United States in Vietnam. It has been used to describe this conflict since at least 1963, when Irving Kristol used it, writing in The New Leader:

The United States cannot overthrow the Diem regime, occupy the country, manage the economy, run the civil administration, and then fight the war for the Vietnamese. We have troubles enough without plunging into that quagmire.

Although quagmire was first used (since 1566) to describe a literal swamp, it quickly became used in a figurative sense, to mean ‘a situation that is full of problems’. A letter from Sir William Cecil to Lord Sydney in 1567 used the word in just such fashion, to describe the state of affairs in Scotland:

Scotland is in a quagmire, nobody seemeth to stand still.

One non-political aspect of Obama’s use of the word that was commented on was his favoring of a pronunciation with a broad a (kwäg-mī(-ə)r), rather than a short one, with the vowel in the first syllable matching the one in 'top,' instead of the typically used vowel that matches the one in 'tap'. This led Ronan Farrow to declare on Twitter: “The real winner tonight - people who pronounce "quagmire" with a long "a".” (Farrow uses the term "long a," which phoneticians would say sounds like the a in fate).

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