Metaphoric 'Bow Wave' Makes Waves

Rob Kyff on

In a recent interview, National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster told PBS Newshour anchor Judy Woodruff that the Trump administration had increased the defense budget to address "a bow wave of deferred military modernization."

Hmmm ... a naval metaphor from a career Army man. This bears some checking out.

In its literal sense, of course, "bow wave" refers to the wave that forms at the bow of a ship when it moves through the water. Bow waves slow down the ship by reducing its kinetic energy and can also swamp smaller ships, damage docks and delight surfers.

Though "bow wave" first appeared in its nautical sense in 1877, the earliest metaphoric use I could find surfaced in a context surprisingly similar to McMaster's. A headline over an article published in the June 1978 issue of the Armed Forces Journal International, for instance, read, "New Systems Pose Huge 'Bow Wave' for Army Budget."

Since then, "bow wave" has been widely used to describe future financial encumbrances, especially in the military. In 1982, for instance, the Washington Post described a "bow wave phenomenon," in which spending for a large weapons system is minimal during the first couple of years but then, as the project gains momentum, bulges to extraordinary amounts in subsequent years.

In non-military fields, the term can also convey the concept of overwhelming, crushing volume. In 1999, for instance, Business Wire reported that the pharmaceutical industry was "under increasing pressure to cope with a bow wave of new compounds."

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In other business contexts, however, the phrase bears a different twist. Farlex Financial Dictionary defines it as "a slang term for the initial shock of a change decreed by upper management," which brings us back to those small boats being swamped by the bow wave of a big boat.

Amazingly enough, "bow wave" can also be used to describe positive phenomena. In 2014, for instance, the New York Times quoted venture capitalist Marc Andreessen using the term to mean "abundance": "There is a bow wave of uncounted billions of dollars of philanthropic contributions that will unfold over the next 10 to 20 years from Silicon Valley."

We're clearly being swamped, if not capsized, by a "bow wave" of many meanings for this term. So, if you decide to use "bow wave," be sure to provide enough context to make its meaning clear. Then take a bow, wave, and sail full-speed ahead.


Rob Kyff, a teacher and writer in West Hartford, Conn., invites your language sightings. Send your reports of misuse and abuse, as well as examples of good writing, via e-mail to or by regular mail to Rob Kyff, Creators Syndicate, 737 3rd Street, Hermosa Beach, CA 90254.

Copyright 2018 Creators Syndicate Inc.


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