“Weaponize” was born in the 1950s as military jargon. It was an instantly comprehensible neologism, useful and compact and inflected with the managerial style then in vogue. “To turn into a weapon” sounds clumsy and crude, bringing to mind early man gripping a fist-size rock or a prisoner sharpening a toothbrush. “Weaponize,” on the other hand, conjures thick-rimmed glasses and pomade, official reports and secret plans. It’s a contemporary of “collateral damage,” another term emblematic of what had not yet been termed the military-industrial complex.
Its first documented appearance in front of a wide audience came in 1957, in an Associated Press interview with Wernher von Braun, the former Nazi engineer who would become an integral figure in the American space program. Von Braun explained to the unnamed reporter that his work had been to “weaponize” the military’s ballistic-missile technology. Army rocketry was, of course, always destined for war, so von Braun’s use of the word suggested the fulfillment of a plan, more than a conversion. Over the decades that followed, “weaponization” proliferated alongside nuclear warheads, describing their constantly multiplying delivery systems, and lingered through the late stages of the Cold War. But it has periodically re-entered the lexicon to address fresh fears: anxiety about new infectious diseases being put to sinister ends; weapons of mass destruction, during the run-up to the first and second American wars in Iraq; and of course, 21st-century terror attacks, in which horrifying and surprising things — passenger planes, trucks — were converted into instruments of slaughter.
John Herrman, “Up in Arms”, The New York Times Magazine (19 March 2017), 12.