Open Journal of Modern Linguistics
2013. Vol.3, No.1, 20-29
Published Online March 2013 in SciRes (
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Word-Formation in Mark Boal’s The Hurt Locker
Starling David Hunter III
Carnegie Mellon University in Qatar, Doha, Qatar
Received October 22nd, 2012; revised D e c em ber 5th, 2012; accepted December 12th, 2012
The repetition and development of unifying themes, ideas, and images within narratives are long-standing
concerns in the literature on screenwriting. Four points of consensus concerning themes are evident:
themes are 1) very few 2) are different from—but related to—the plotline 3) are oft-repeated and 4) are
implicitly, rather than explicitly, stated. Several areas within the field of linguistics are relevant to these
topics. Foremost among them is morphology, specifically word-formation—the rules by which new
words are built upon the bases of other words, roots, or stems. This article considers the relationship of
several kinds of word formation to thematic repetition in Mark Boal’s The Hurt Locker, the 2010 Acad-
emy-Award winner for best original screenplay. The morphological analysis reveals a pattern of thematic
repetition extending to every scene of the screenplay and that encompasses the story’s underlying and
unifying themes.
Keywords: Etymology; Morphology; Screenwriting; Screenplay; Rhetoric; Network Text Analysis;
Indo-European Roots
Academics and practitioners of screenwriting have written
extensively about the repetition and development of unifying
themes, ideas, and images within narratives (e.g. Mehring, 1990;
Horton, 2000; Parker, 2002; Dethridge, 2004; Field, 1998, 2005;
Snyder, 2005; Norman, 2007). Generalizing about that litera-
ture is exceedingly challenging. Firstly, investigations differ ac-
cording to which elements of a narrative are repeated, where
they are repeated, and how often. Secondly, much of the re-
search is case-based and evidence offered in support of pre-
ferred explanations is largely anecdotal. And yet, despite the
differences, there are several points of consensus about the
repetition of themes, particularly within screenplays. Among
the most important are that themes are 1) very few in number 2)
are related to, but different from, the plot 3) are repeated exten-
sively and 4) are abstract, and thus inferred rather than explic-
itly stated.
Within the field of linguistic morphology are several con-
cepts relevant to this topic. Of special interest and relevance is
the subject of word-formation—the rules by which new words
are built upon the bases of other words, roots, or stems. In this
article I examine the relationship of several kinds of word-
formation—e.g. inflection, derivation, acronyms, and compound
words—to thematic repetition in Mark Boal’s The Hurt Locker,
the 2010 Academy-Award winner for best film and best origin-
nal screenplay. Drawing on concepts from screenwriting and
word-formation, I identify a clear pattern of thematic repetition
in the narrative, one that extends to every scene of the screen-
play and that accounts for the story’s underlying and unifying
themes, as well as the events and character arcs that dramatize
Literature Review
Despite considerable differences in conceptual vocabulary
and in units of analysis, four points of consensus emerge from
my reading of work on the repetition of themes within screen-
plays. In short, themes are 1) very few in number 2) are related
to but distinct from the plot 3) are repeated extensively and 4)
are abstract, and thus inferred rather than explicitly stated.
Concerning the first of these points, most authorities agree that
the number of themes a screenplay contains is three or fewer
with one being the preferred number. For example, in The
Screenplay: A Blend of Film Form and Content, Mehring (1990)
finds one—and only one one—theme per screenplay: in Body
and Soul it’s “self-respect”, in Beverly Hills Cop it’s “chutz-
pah”, and in Rebel without a Cause it’s “responsibility”. For
Field (2005), the number is sometimes larger than one. In The
Royal Tenenbaums he identifies three themes—“family, failure,
and forgiveness”—but in Chinatown and Pulp Fiction, the
number drops back to one. In the former the theme is “water”
and it is, he writes, “an organic thematic thread, woven through
the story.” In Pulp Fiction the single theme is “revenge”. In The
Art and Science of Screenwriting, Parker (2002: p. 91) differ-
entiates between eight broad “theme types” and the narrower
“thematic concern” of a particular screenplay. The former in-
clude the desire for justice or order, the pursuit of love or
pleasure, and the fear of death or the unknown. According to
Parker, while broad theme types are useful for classifying entire
genres, any given screenplay should have only one. Any more
than that and, he asserts, confusion ensues:
In addition, the longer the narrative, the more likely it
is—especially one which is story-dominated—for there to
be a number of themes competing for attention within the
narrative. The real confusion is when one or more stories
are focused on themes different from that of the main
story. one of the most powerful uses of theme in narra-
tive construction is for all the stories in the narrative to re-
flect the same basic theme (ibid).
In Writing Your Screenplay, Dethridge (2004) allows for the
possibility of multiple themes yet still draws a distinction be-
tween the “central theme” or “premise” of a screenplay and
subordinate themes. The former is “the overall concept that
governs the story”, while the latter are cast in an important but
decidedly supporting role. Specifically, she states that “the
strongest stories” are built “around a well-organized set of
themes which help to cement the premise and to imbue the
story and characters with flavor or attitude”. She illustrates this
point with The Silence of the Lambs, a film in which “meta-
morphosis” is the central theme or premise. The three second-
dary themes each have to do with taking (on) a new life or
Concerning the second point—the relationship between th eme
and plot—Mehring (1990: p. 222) posits a superior role for the
former and a subordinate but vital role for the latter:
plot is a vehicle for theme. Plot is events. Theme is the
glue that holds all of the events together—the principle by
which all things are related to each other. Theme is the
unifying force. Plot and theme go hand in hand, cannot be
separated, but are different. They illuminate parts of the
same experience. The theme tells us what the protagonist
needs and yearns for—the theme goal. The plot shows us
what the protagonist will do to achieve what she needs—
the plot goal.
For Mehring it is the theme that makes a story out of other-
wise disparate events, that relates events to each other. She
states that:
a theme without plot is not a story. A story without a
theme is an empty series of events that may distract but
not involve the reader/viewer. It is the theme thatde-
termines the patterns of repetition, and that discovers that
connections that rela te a ll of the elements (ibid).
Similarly, in Essays on Ayn Rands Fountainhead, Mayhew
(2006: p. 88) recounts Rand’s efforts to adapt her novel, The
Fountainhead, for the screen. Her central concern, Mayhew
asserts, was to achieve close integration of theme (the “core” of
a story’s “abstract meaning”) and plot (“a purposeful progres-
sion of logically connected events leading to the resolution of
Recall that the third point of consensus concerns the exten-
siveness or ubiquitous repetition of themes. Dethridge (2004)
advanced this notion concerning “metamorphosis”, the central
theme in The Silence of the Lambs, when she wrote that “the
audiencemay not really ‘see’ the writer’s premise on a con-
scious level.” However, on close examination of the script, it
seems clear that the writer includes evidence for his premise in
every scene (p. 52, emphasis added). Developing this idea fur-
ther, she offers an intriguing and testable hypothesis when she
states that “any scene picked at random from your screenplay
can be read as a kind of sample or miniature, scaled-down ver-
sion of the entire screenplay. That’s because each scene will
reflect the larger tone, mood, premise and themes of the screen-
play (p. 150, emphasis added).
Dethridge’s discussion of thematic repetition also addresses
the fourth broad point of consensus—the abstract and implicit
nature of themes:
The premise is the most difficult theoretical element to
discuss, as it represents one of the most ethereal aspects of
the writing. The writer must have the patience or the focus
to identify a premise in their own work. The premise is
often invisible to the audience. Rather than being stated
baldly or acted out (it) works at a subliminal or sub-
conscious level to help convey a strong idea that goes be-
yond concrete action into the realm of feeling or mood.
Think of your premise as the central, most important
theme. It’s an idea which will be repeated again and again
in different ways throughout the script.
Mehring (1990: p. 224) further elaborates the relationship be-
tween the invisibility or implied nature of themes and role of
the screenwriter:
Almost any theme can be announced in a relatively few
sentences—but that is not the function of screenplays. It is
the function of screenwriters to seduce, to influence, to
affect—to gain understanding and acceptance of their
themes through vicarious and emotional experiences.
It is the domain of the screenwriter to create a journey that
elicits feelings and personal insights. The reader/review-
er can announce the theme after experiencing the screen-
play—but the screenwriter never does.
On this last point there is a notable dissenting opinion. In his
best-selling book on screenwriting intriguingly entitled Save the
Cat! Snyder (2005: p. 73) sharply rejects the notion that themes
remain unstated. Known for having been one of Hollywood’s
most successful “spec” screenwriters, Snyder maintains that the
theme should be stated “loud and clear” on no later than the
fifth page of the screenplay. The key consideration is that the
protagonist who doesn’t recognize it:
Somewhere in the first five minutes of a well-structured
screenplay, someone (usually not the main character) will
pose a question or make a statement (usually to the main
character) that is the theme of the movie. “Be careful what
you wish for,” this person will say. Or “Pride goeth before
the fall” or “Family is more important than money.” It
won’t be this obvious, it will be conversational, an off-
hand remark that the main character doesn’t get at the
moment—but will have far-reaching and meaningful im-
pact later. This statement is the movie’s thematic prem-
ise. (Bold and italic emphasis in original).
The Role of Words in the Repetition of Themes
In all of the works referenced, words—both as dialog and
description—are assigned a central role in the repetition of
themes. However, detailed explanations and expositions by the
authors of how words perform this role are exceedingly rare.
Rather, generalizations supported by the occasional anecdote
are more the norm. Robson’s (1983: p. 45) study of the narra-
tive structure of Grey Gardens is a case in point. Repetition, he
asserts, is essential to four “recurrent themes” that he says cha-
racterize the lives of the mother and daughter protagonists—
Big Edie and Little Edie:
These recurrent themes may be arranged conveniently as
in clusters of antinomies. The first concerns Freedom and
Confinement and it includes repeated references to inde-
pendence and dependence, self-reliance and loneliness, as
well as city and country. The second involves Past and
Present and it includes youth and age as well as time and
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 21
timelessness. The third involves Love and Hate and it in-
cludes compassion and contempt, desire and repression,
modesty and promiscuity and marriage and divorce. The
fourth concerns Order and Disorder and it includes mem-
ory and forgetfulness as well as creativity and failure.
Each of these oppositions linked with an often elaborate
network of visual and verbal references (ibid).
“Elaborate” though the relationships may be, Robson pro-
vides only two examples of this “network of visual and verbal
references”. The most relevant one concerns how the sub-theme
of modesty and promiscuity is underscored by “repeated refer-
ences to clothing” (ibid, 45). But beyond noting Little Edie’s
insistence upon wearing girdles, Robson does not place refer-
ences to girdles within the context of other references to cloth-
ing. Nor does he indicate what relationship those articles have
to one another or to the four recurring themes.
I am aware of only one study of films that takes words and
their properties into account in its investigation of themes—
Grindon’s (1996: p. 66) analysis of the boxing genre. Working
from the premise that film “genres trade on the expectations of
the viewer (and) promise a particular emotional response” he
posits that “the characteristic emotions elicited by the boxing
film are nostalgia and pathos.” But unlike prior studies of the
boxing genre, Grindon uses etymology to relate these two
words to recurring themes. After asserting that “a bittersweet
longing for the past finds expression in the boxing film in mul-
tiple ways”, Grindon insightfully observes that “nostalgia finds
its etymological root in the Greek words for home and pain;
pathos has a close relationship, as its Greek etymology is rooted
in the word for suffering. Bearing witness to suffering is central
to spectatorship in the boxing genre.” To date, no investigations
of themes with screenplays have built on Grindon’s implied and
more general thesis—that the properties of words are instru-
mental to identifying recurring themes and the “multiple ways”
that they find expression.
What Is Word-Formation?
In linguistics, the term word-formation describes the process
of forming new words through changes in their form (Wisniewski,
2007). Scholars in the field of morphology, the study of rules
governing the internal structure of words, have described sev-
eral types of word-formation (Stekauer, 2000; Plag, 2003, Lie-
ber & Stekauer, 2009). Five of the most widely-recognized
forms are applicable to this study—inflection, derivation, com-
pounding, acronyms, and blend words. The American Heritage
Dictionary of the English Language (AHDEL) defines “inflec-
tion” as the “alteration” of the form of a word by the addition of
an affix, as in English dogs from dog, or by changing the form
of a base, as in English spoke from speak, that indicates gram-
matical features such as number, person, mood, or tense.
Derivation most typically involves the appending of prefixes
and suffixes to a word stem. Compared to inflection, derivation
often results in changes to the grammatical class of a stem and
typically results in a greater change in meaning. Examples us-
ing head as a noun or verb include headless (adjective), headily
(adverb), heady (adjective) and header (noun).
Compounding refers to the creation of new words through
the combination of old or existing ones. The combined word is
very often very different in meaning than the either of the
original two, e.g. head, first, and headfirst. Other examples
using head include headroom, headset, headcase, and head-
Acronyms are words f ormed from the initial letters of a name,
e.g. NATO from North Atlantic Treaty Organization or by com-
bining the initial letters or parts of a series of words, e.g. radar
from radio detecting and range.
Finally, blending involves joining parts of two words. Well-
known examples from English include smog from smoke and
fog, guesstimate from guess and estimate, brunch from break-
fast and lunch and motel from motor and hotel.
Applying Word-Formation to the Thematic
Each of the five types of word-formation listed above is ap-
pl i c a ble t o t h eme- w ord s l ike thos e ide n t ified by Grindon (1996),
i.e. nostalgia and pathos. And they can be applied to at least
four different levels or units of analysis: 1) the theme-word
itself 2) its etymological root 3) its synonyms and/or homo-
nyms and 4) their etymological roots and/or roots with syn-
onymous definitions. For example, assume the noun “light”
were the theme-word in question. The first level would include
words such as lights, lighted, lit, lighting, light emitting diode,
LED, light-year and light bulb. At the second level of the
analysis, we would begin by recognizing that “light” descends
from the Indo-European root leuk- which means “light, bright-
ness” (Watkins, 2000: p. 49). Other words descending from that
root include illuminate, illustrate, lightning, lucid, and lunar. In
the third level would we include the other sense of “light”, i.e.
having little weight. To our list of words associated with the
theme-word we would add lightly, the adjective lighter, and
several new compound words, e.g. lighthearted, lightweight,
light infantry, and even light beer. In the fourth level we would
add the derivatives of legwh-, the etymological root of this
sense of “light” (Watkins, 2000: p. 47). First included in the list
would be words such as relief, carnival, elevate, lever, and lung;
all of their inflected and derivative forms; and finally, com-
pounds, blends or acronyms with which they are a part, e.g.
elevator music, iron lung, pain reliever, and leveraged buyout
In the next section of this study I treat both “hurt” and
“locker” as theme-words and analyze each in a manner similar
to that detailed in the preceding paragraph. The result of doing
so is three-fold. Firstly, from the two theme-words I identify
several hundred inflections, derivations, compound words, acro-
nyms, and blend words. Secondly, using the etymological roots
of the latter three groups, I construct a morpho-etymological
map of the screenplay, i.e. a network of verbal associations
extending to all of its scenes, events, character arcs, dialog, and
description. Finally, through an analysis of the properties of this
network I identify an unstated, underlying theme of the screen-
play. Before describing that analysis and its results in greater
detail, I first provide a synopsis of the story and details about
the screenplay and its author.
Plot Summary & Screenplay Description
The Hurt Locker (Boal, 2007) follows a US Army explosive
ordnance disposal (EOD) team during the Iraq War. The
screenplay was written by Mark Boal, a freelance journalist
who embedded with such a team in Iraq in 2004. The film was
directed by Kathyrn Bigelow and stars Jeremy Renner,
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Anthony Mackie, and Brian Geraghty. The story follows three
members of an EOD unit over the last six wee ks of a year-long
tour. The film was shot in Jordan, within miles of the Iraqi
border (Wikipedia, 2012).
Starting with its initial screening at the 2008 Venice Interna-
tional Film Festival, The Hurt Locker has earned many awards
and overwhelmingly positive critical reception. It won in six
categories at the 82nd Academy Awards and was nominated in
nine, including Best Picture, Best Director, Best Actor, Best
Original Screenplay, Best Sound Editing, Best Sound Mixing,
and Best Film Editing. Bigelow, the director, became the first
woman to win the Best Director award. The film also shined at
the 2010 BAFTA Awards, winning best film, director, original
screenplay, editing, cinematography and sound. Interestingly,
the one place the film succeeded least was at the box office:
The Hurt Locker is the lowest-grossing movie to ever win the
Academy Best Picture award (ibid).
The title takes its name from a colloquial expression for be-
ing injured in an explosion. It appears to have originated during
the Vietnam War where it was one of several phrases with
similar connotations. The setting for the film is the early stages
of the post-invasion period in Iraq, circa 2004. The protagonist
is Sergeant First Class William James, a battle-tested veteran,
who becomes the team leader of a Baghdad-based, EOD unit
belonging to the Bravo Company. He draws the assignment
after Staff Sergeant Thompson, the previous leader, is killed by
a radio-controlled improvised explosive device (IED). Working
under James are Sergeant J. T. Sanborn and Specialist Owen
Eldridge. Their jobs entail maintaining radio communications
with their team leader, James, via the radio inside his state-
of-the-art bomb suit, as well as providing him with rifle cover
while he examines and defuses IEDs. During their missions of
disarming IEDs and engaging insurgents together, James’s
unorthodox methods lead Sanborn and Eldridge to conclude
that he is clearly very talented, but equally reckless. Not sur-
prisingly, tensions rapidly escalate between James and his two
team members. During a raid on a warehouse, James discovers
a dead body with an unexploded bomb surgically implanted.
James believes it to be the body of “Beckham”, a young Iraqi
merchant and soccer enthusiast that James had previously be-
friended on the base.
Later, when James orders his team to hunt down two insur-
gents responsible for a recent spate of bombings, Sanborn pro-
tests, insisting that the task be assigned to an infantry unit.
James overrules him and during the subsequently botched op-
eration, Eldridge is accidentally shot in the leg. The next morn-
ing, James is approached by “Beckham” whom he brusquely
ignores. Eldridge, who is being prepared to be airlifted to a
hospital, angrily blames James for his shattered leg.
In the final act, after failing in a mission to remove and dis-
arm a time-bomb strapped to an Iraqi civilian’s chest, Sanborn
breaks down. He tearfully confesses to James that he is over-
whelmed by the pressure of serving in an EOD unit. What he
looks forward to, he says, is leaving Iraq and starting a family.
Soon thereafter, James returns home to his wife and infant son
in Tennessee. He is shown dutifully performing the routine
tasks of suburban civilian life—shopping in the supermarket,
cleaning leaves from the gutter, and helping his wife prepare
dinner. One night James quietly confides in his son about his
love for his work. The next we see James, he is back in Iraq,
beginning a new 365-day rotation as an EOD team leader, this
time with the Delta Company.
Word-Formation Analysis
A PDF formatted copy of The Hurt Locker was obtained
online (Boal, 2007). The text was removed and pasted into
Microsoft Word. After removing spurious characters, the direc-
tion “CUT TO:”, and page numbers, the screenplay was found
to have 19,419 words in 145 scenes ranging in length from one
sentence (excluding the slug line) to over four pages.
Recall the basic analytical approach outlined above: five
types of word-formation are used to generate a list of words
associated with the two theme-words—“hurt” and “locker”.
The analysis extends to four different levels or units of analysis:
1) the theme-words themselves 2) their etymological roots 3)
their synonyms and/or homonyms and 4) their etymological
Theme-words: The word “hurt” has several inflections and
derivations—hurts, hurting, hurtful, hurtfully, and hurtle—but
is associated with no well-known compounds. Among this set,
only the word “hurt” appears in the screenplay and then only
three times—once in dialog and twice in description. The word
“locker” does not appear at all in the screenplay, nor do inflec-
tions, derivations, or compounds based upon it.
Etymological Roots of the Theme-Words: According to the
AHDEL, the theme-word “hurt” descends from the Middle
English hurten. No additional words-forms are identified with
the roots beyond those in step one, above. Again according to
the AHDEL, the word “locker” descends from the Old English
loc- meaning “bolt, fastening, enclosure.” Six inflections, deri-
vations, and compounds of it appear eleven times in the screen-
play—lock, locked, locking, locks, unlocks, and padlocks. No-
tably, the word “locker” is not among them. Equally notable is
the fact that the first half of the only compound, padlock, is of
unknown origin.
Synonyms and Homonyms of the Theme-Words: The third
step involves consideration of synonyms and homonyms of the
two theme-words. I used Rogets 21st Century Thesaurus to
identify 23 synonyms of “hurt” as a verb and adjective and of
“locker” as a noun. Fifteen inflections, derivatives, and com-
pounds of these synonyms appear in the screenplay are found in
the screenplay—pain, unharmed, harmless, wound, wounds,
wounded, exit wound, burn, burner, burns, burn ing , bruises,
bruising, chest, and trunk. These words appear a total of forty-
four times over seventeen different scenes.
Etymological Roots of Synonym & Synonymous Roots: In the
third column of Table 1, below, are listed the twenty-eight
etymological roots of the twenty-three synonyms of “hurt” and
“locker”. The fourth column lists the inflections and derivations
of the synonyms of “hurt” and “locker” that appear in the
screenplay. The fifth column contains all compounds, acronyms,
and blend words appearing in the screenplay that are associated
with the roots listed in column three. The sixth column lists the
“new” etymological roots, i.e. the roots of the other words
forming the compound word, acronym, or blend word.
Several patterns in the table are noteworthy. First of all,
word-forms associated with most synonyms are found in the
screenplay. The only six synonyms not represented are afflict,
injure, ache, scratch, sore, and cabinet. Interestingly, not one of
these descends from an Indo-European root. Secondly, all
synonyms associated with three or more word-forms in the
screenplay have Indo-European roots. The synonyms associated
with the greatest number of word-forms in the screenplay are
burn, suffer, and nick—all synonyms of “hurt”—and trunk,
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 23
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Table 1.
Synonyms of “hurt” and “ locke r” and their etymolo gic al roots and word-form s .
Theme-word Synonym root (definition)1 Inflections and derivations
(of synonyms)
that appear in the screenplay
Compounds, acronyms, and
blend words (related to synonyms)
that appear in the screenplay New roots
hurt abuse usen (use) use, used, us es
hurt burn gwher- (to heat, warm)* brand, brands, burn, burne d ,
burning, burns, burnt still-burning
hurt sting stegh- (to stick, prick; pointed)*extinguisher fire-extinguisher paw (fire)*
hurt torment terkw (to twist)* torch, tormentor blowtorch bhle (to blow )*
hurt torture terkw (to twist)* torch, tormentor blowtorch bhle (to blow )*
hurt wound wen-2 (to beat, wound)* wound, wounded, wounds exit-wound ei (to go)*
hurt afflict fligere (to cast down, to strike)
hurt injure yewes (law)*
hurt ache aken (ache)
hurt harm hearm (harm) harmless, unharmed
Hurt distress streig- (to stroke, rub, press)*constrained, strains, stress, strikes
hurt pain kwei (to pay, atone,
compensate)* punishing
hurt scratch scracchen (scratch)
hurt sore sar (sore)
hurt suffer
bher-1 (to carry ; to b ear
children)* bear, birth, confer, differences,
different, offers, prefer, referring
hurt wound wen-2 (to beat, wound)* wound, wounded, wounds exit-wound ei (to go)*
hurt bruise brysan (to c r ush) bruises, bruising
hurt nick sed- (to sit)* assessment, cathedral, chair(s),
nest, nestled, o bsessing, possessed,
possesses, po s sessions headset kaput (head)*
locker cabinet cabane (smal l h o use)
locker chest cest (box) chest
locker closet clos (enclosure) close, closed, closer, closes,
locker trunk
tere-2 (to cross over, pass
through)* through, t r ansfixed, transitions,
translator, transport, t ru nk
locker cupboard cuppe (drinking vessel) cups
locker cupboard bord (board) board circuit board ei (to go)*
locker wardrobe
wer-3 (to perceive, watch out
for)* Awkward(ly), forward, guard,
toward(s), ware s warehouse hous (house)*
locker wardrobe reup (to snatch)* erupt, erupts, in t errupts, ripping,
rips, routine
locker cold storage gel (cold, to freeze)* chill, cool
locker cold storage sta- (to stand)*
circumstance, consists, distance,
instant(ly), instead, resistance,
resists, restore, rests, stable,
stall(s), stand, standard, standing,
stands, state, static, stay, stud,
system, un derstand(s )
standard issue, state-of-the-art,
goal post, still-burning,
steering wheel
gol (boundary),
ar- (to fit together),*
kwel-1 (t o r evolve)*
Note: 1*indicates an Indo-European root found in the American Heritage Dictionary of Indo -European Roots (Watkins, 2000).
wardrobe, and (cold) storage—all synonyms of “locker”. The
word storage descends from the Indo-European root sta- which
means “to stand” (Watkins, 2000: p. 84). The twenty-two in-
flections and derivations and the seven compounds associated
with that root are greater, by far, than the number associated
with any other root. Third, it is worth noting that in every in-
stance, the number of compound words is smaller than the
number of inflections and derivations associated with a root.
Also, in no instance is a root associated with a compound and
not an inflection or derivative. Finally, the eleven compound
words generate eight additional etymological. Six of these eight
roots are Indo-European roots as indicated in the American
Heritage Dictionary of Indo-European Root s (Watkins, 2000)—
paw- (fire), ei- (to go), bhle- (to blow), kaput- (head), ar- (to fit
together), and kwel -1 (to revolve, move around) and two are
Old or Middle English—hous (house), gol (boundary). Those
roots, along with their definitions, are listed in the rightmost
column of Table 1.
One fact not apparent from the Table 1 concerns the number
of listed inflections, derivations, and compounds and their fre-
quency of appearance in the screenplay. The table contains a
total of 126 word associated with the 23 synonyms. Together
they appear 379 times in the screenplay. That is nearly 90 times
as many words as the inflections, derivations, and compounds
of “hurt” and “locker” alone.
As for roots with synonymous meanings, only one is evident
among the Indo-European roots listed in the American Heritage
Dictionary of Indo-European Roots (AHDIER)—pei which
means “to hurt” (Watkins, 2000: p. 62). In that dictionary, six
words are shown to descend from that root—fiend, passible,
passion, impassive, and patient. Only one of them is found in
the screenplay—the word impassive, which appears once. No
Indo-European roots contain the word lock or connote any of its
variant forms.
A Further Extension
In the first column of Table 2, below, are the eight roots pre-
viously placed in the rightmost column of Table 1. In the sec-
ond column of Table 2 are the fifty inflections, derivations, and
compounds associated with these eight roots. Another twenty-
two compound words and one acronym are listed in the third
column. They are associated with nine additional etymological
roots—bodi (body), plaudere (to clap), radius (radius), zona
(zone), cappe (cap), leuk- (light), kwetwer- (four), and gwhen-
(to strike, kill)—all of which are listed in the rightmost (fourth)
column. This process was repea ted seve ral time s. That is to say,
newly introduced roots (shown in the rightmost column) be-
came the roots appearing in the first column of another “table”.
These roots, in turn, gave rise to another set of inflections,
derivations, and compounds. This process had to be repeated
over twenty times before no new compound words and roots
were identified. At the conclusion of this process over 122
etymological roots were identified. Excluding spelled numbers
(e.g. thirty-eight, six, and thirteen), references to the time of
day (e.g. 9 o’clock) and words included on lists of the 100 most
common in the English language (e.g. of, new, and see), a
total of 651 inflections, derivations, compounds, acronyms, and
blends associated with these roots were found in the screenplay.
In all, these 651 words appear 2335 times in the 19,419-word
screenplay. That is equivalent to 12% or nearly one in every
eight words. Given that the 100 most common words account
for just under 40% of the total, these 651 words account for just
under 20%, or one in every five, of the remaining words in the
Network Mapping
Of the 651 words identified above, 105 were compounds,
blends, or acronyms, excluding compound pronouns (some-
body, anybody, and someone) and pseudo-compounds such as
supermarket, overhead, forearm, and uphill. Shown below, Fig-
ure 1 presents a morpho-etymological network mapping of the
105 compounds, blends, and acronyms. Like all network maps,
it is comprised of nodes and ties. In this case, the nodes are
etymological roots. Each pair of nodes is linked by a tie which
in this case is the compound, acronym, or blend word associ-
ated with the two nodes. For example, in the Figure 1 the tie
labeled “body armor” connects a node labeled bodi-, which
means “body”, and the node labeled ar- which means “to fit
together”. Similarly, a tie labeled “gunfire” connects a node
labeled paw- which means “fire” and another node labeled
gwhen- which means “to strike, kill” (Watkins, 2000).
Several features of each map are noteworthy. Before dis-
cussing them in detail it should be noted that the nodes of the
network appear in two colors. Recall that in Table 1 were listed
twenty-three synonyms of hurt and locker and that twenty-six
etymological roots were associated with them. Among these
roots, eight had compound words associated with them. The
roots are sed- (to sit), sta- (to stand), gwher- (to heat, warm),
wen-2 (to beat, wound), bord (board), terkw- (to twist), stegh-
(to stick, prick, pointed), and wer-3 (to perceive, watch out for).
The nodes in the network associated with these roots are un-
filled, i.e. white. All other nodes are “filled” and appear in
The large node near the center of Figure 1 is the Latin
plaudere- which means “to clap.” This root is associated with
several compounds and acronyms appearing in the screen-
play—improvised explosive devic e (IED), explosive ordnance
disposal (EOD), plastic explosives, and explosives disposal
Table 2.
Eight additional etymological roots associ ated with synonyms of Hurt and Locker.
Root (definition) Compounds & Acronyms in Screenplay New Roots
ar (to fit together)* army-issue, b ody armor, explosive ordnance disposal (E OD),
state-of-the-art, Explosives Disposal Range bodi (body),
plaudere (to clap )
bhle (to blow ) * blast radius, blast z o n e, blastin g cap(s), bl o wtorch, radius (radius ), zona (z one), cappe (cap)
ei (to go)* army issue, circuit board, exit wound, standard issue,
gol (goal) goal post
hous (house) warehouse
kaput (head)* headlights, headlock, headquarters, headset leuk (light), kwetwer (four)
kwel-1 (t o r evolve)* steering wheel
paw (fire)* fire extinguisher, fireball, gunfire gwhen (to strike, pull)
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 25
Figure 1.
A morpho-etymological map of The Hurt Locker.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
Copyright © 2013 SciRes. 27
range (EDR). There is one, long, closed loop comprised of nine
nodes and nine connecting ties. The roots assigned to those nine
nodes are bombe- (bomb), bodi- (body), ar- (to fit together),
apo- (off, away), sker-2 (to cut), fallen (to fall), ped- (foot),
bhel-2 (to blow, swell), and sekw-1 (to follow). The com-
pounds and acronyms associated with these nine nodes are body
bomb, body parts, body armor, army-issue, state-of-the-art,
EOD, plastic explosives, explosives disposal range, ridge-ra-
vine, downrange, crestfallen, footfalls, tripod-mounted, football ,
bullhorn, bullshit, fireball, full-bore, soccer ball, play time, and
bomb suit.
Extending in the other direction is a long chain of com-
pounds connecting plaudere to the Indo-European (IE) root
newn in the bottom right corner. Specifically, a string of twelve
compound words and acronyms connect these two nodes—
improvised explosive device (IED), one-story, one -finger salute,
middle finger, middle class, first class, faraway, half-way, wind-
shield, window(s), daisy chain, and noon day.
Across the entire network, five nodes have five or more
ties—plaudere (to clap), per-1 (forward, through), bhel-2 (to
blow, swell), sta- (to stand), skel-1 (to cut). The former is the
root of all compounds and acronyms associated with explo-
sives—improvised explosive device (IED), explosives ordnance
disposal (EOD), explosives disposal range, and plastic explo-
sives. The second node gives rise to a numerically-larger and
semantically-broader set of compounds—pride of place, back
and forth, faraway, face first, first-person, and first-class. The
third root, sta- (to stand), has five ties and gives rise to five
compounds—standard issue, st ate -of-the-art, still-burning, stan-
dard issue, and goal post.
The root bhel-2 (to blow, swell) has six ties, five of which
represent these compounds—fireball, full-bore, soccer ball,
football, and the expletive bullshit. The sixth tie is one of only
two in the entire network that has arrows at both ends. This tie
is unlabeled because it represents presence of a homonym. The
node to which the tie extends is gwel- (to throw, reach, pierce).
Among its derivatives are the words kill, devil, embolism, pa-
role, symbol, quell, ballet, ballad, and ball. The latter is a
homonym of the word “ball” that descends from bhel-2. But
ball descending from gwel- refers to a “formal gather for social
dancing” or “an extremely enjoyable time or experience”. This
relationship is extremely significant to the network. Through it
an otherwise disconnected branch of the network is included.
That branch includes the compounds seven nodes and eight
compound words—blow torch, blasting cap(s), blast radius,
blast zone, kill zone, Green Zone, and crab grass.
The root skel-1 (to cut) also has six ties. The five corre-
sponding compounds are halfway, half-destroyed, half-empty,
shell-shocked, and windshield. Like bhel-2, the sixth tie signi-
fies a homonym. This time it is the word “school”, one sense of
which descends from skel-1 and the other from segh (to hold).
The context of the use of the word is in a description of one of
the three lead characters, Sergeant J. T. Sanborn. He is de-
scribed as a “type-A jock, high school football star, cocky,
outgoing, ready with a smile and quick with a joke or, if you
prefer, a jab on the chin. Think Muhammad Ali with a rifle.”
The school that descends from skel-1 does not refer to an insti-
tution of instruction. Rather it refers to a grouping of aquatic
animals, e.g. fish, swimming together. Though clearly not the
sense intended, it does allow the compounds high school and
high-value and their corresponding roots to be connected to the
rest of the network. The establishment of this connection is
especially significant when we consider the phrase “high school
football star”. Here we see a key element of character articu-
lated by combining words from widely-separated roots and
nodes in the network.
Notably, the 105 compounds appear in two-thirds of the
scenes (98 of 145 = 67%). When the other 546 inflections and
derivations are included, then coverage extends to all 145
scenes. That is to say, the 105 compounds and the 546 inflec-
tions and derivations of the associated roots appear one or more
times in every scene of the screenplay. As noted earlier, these
words comprise one in every five of words not counted among
the most common in the English language (,
2010). Taken together, this suggests that these words form the
building blocks of the passages of description and individual
lines of dialog in the screenplay. If further suggests that one
view of the plot or narrative structure is as a temporal or linear
ordering of the words contained in the semantic network
(Mayhew, 2007).
The Underlying Theme
Recall the four characteristics of underlying themes articu-
lated earlier: they are 1) few in number 2) related to, but dif-
ferent from, the plot 3) repeated throughout the screenplay and
4) abstract, and thus inferred rather than explicitly stated.
Nominally, The Hurt Locker is a story about an explosives
ordnance disposal (EOD) unit. Interestingly, the network map
reflects this fact: the etymological root of explosives, the Latin
plaudere, is one of the most centrally-placed nodes—if not the
most central. It is also one of the most central as measured by
the number of ties. But explosiveness is not the underlying
theme: according to all accounts themes are never this obvious.
Rather, they must be inferred. As such, the root sta-, which
means “to stand”, is a leading candidate.
In Table 3, below, are listed the eight etymological roots as-
sociated with the highest number of words found in the screen-
play. Together they account for just over one-fourth of all the
word identified in the preceding analysis (597/2365 = 25.2%).
The root sta- is among them and it differs from the other seven
others in several important ways. Firstly, it has the largest
number of inflections and derivations of any of the roots—
twenty six in all. Secondly, their distribution in the screenplay
is much less concentrated. In every other instance, one word
accounts for a large percentage of appearances of words associ-
ated with the etymological root. For example, the word headset
appears 28 times in the screenplay. That one word comprises
42% of all appearances of words associated with the root sed-
(to sit). Similarly, the words soldier and soldiers account for
89% of the word associated with the root sol- (whole). In con-
trast, the most frequent word associated with sta- is stay. It
appears only ten times or just 14% of the total. Third, the root
sta- also has the largest number of compounds—five—of any
of the eight roots—goal post, standard issue, state-of-the-art,
steering wheel, and still-burning. Thus it is linked to a greater
number of other words.
These five compounds possess very important links to the
two theme-words, “hurt” and “locker.” For example, the word
“burn” is one of the synonyms of “hurt.” Thus, by way of the
compound still-burning, the root sta- is linked directly to both
theme-words. That’s an interesting choice given the central role
of explosives in the film. Recall further the linkage to “locker”
that was discussed earlier: the word storage, which descends
Table 3.
Eight etymological roots with the most appearances of word-forms in the screenplay.
Root (definition) Inflections & Derivations
(# of appearances) Acronyms, Blends, & Compounds
(# of appearances) Total
Most Freque n tly Appear i ng
(% of total a ppearances)
sed (to sit)* 18 (39) 1 (28) 67 headset (42%)
sta (to stand)* 26 (66) 5 (5) 71 stay (14%)
wegh (to go, transport in a vehicle)* 10 (69) 3 (4) 73 away (41%)
sol (whole)* 7 (73) 2 (2) 75 soldiers (58%)
kaput (head)* 6 (51) 4 (31) 81 head (43%),
sker-2 (to cut)* 12 (81) 3 (3) 84 downrange (30%)
apo (off, away)* 13 (75) 2 (10) 85 off (49%)
(to close, finish, come full circle)* 1 (87) 2 (2) 89 down (98%)
from sta-, is a synonym of “locker”. This root is the only of the
eight that is linked to both theme-words. It is also worth recall-
ing that that among the eight roots associated with synonyms of
“hurt” and “locker” (Table 1), sta- is the only one with more
than one compound. Finally, it is important to note that sta- is
the closest of the eight roots to the central node of the network,
plaudere. The significance of this is two-fold. The root plaud-
ere is not only the centrally placed within the network, it and its
word-forms are topical heart of the screenplay—the trials and
tribulations of an explosives ordnance disposal team. In the
network, only one node comes between these two concepts—
the root ar- which means “to fit together” and from which de-
scend words such as army, armor, and disarming. Thus, the
position of sta- is without question, unique and significant—it
is one step removed from the physical and topic center of the
network and is the only node linked to synonyms of “hurt” and
The root sta- is also the only one of the roots whose com-
pounds forms an antinomy like those described by Robson
(1983). Two compounds in particular—standard issue and
state-of-the-art—form a metaphorically-rich and highly-salient
dichotomy. The former refers to generic, undifferentiated ob-
jects, to basic and/or mandatory items. In the armed services
this presumably refers to standard items given to each sol-
dier—helmets, firearms, boots, binoculars, and the like. In the
screenplay the term is found in the ninth scene. It is employed
in the screenplay in reference to soldier’s housing, specifically
a “darkened standard-issue military trailer” where music by the
American industrial metal band Ministry is “BLASTING, rat-
tling the walls” (Boal, 2007). It is here that Sgt. Sanborn
(“cocky, outgoing, ready with a smile and quick with a joke”)
first meets his new boss, the protagonist, Sgt. First Class Wil-
liam James (“fit and good looking”, “markedly self-absorbed”,
and lacking “some of the ability and most of the need to con-
nect to other people”).
The compound state-of-the-art is defined in the AHDEL as
“the highest level of development, as of a device, technique, or
scientific fiel d, achieved at a particular ti me.” In the screenplay
that word is used in scene 6 where Sanborn helps James’
predecessor, Thompson, put on his protective suit.
Sanborn unpacks “THE SUIT”. A state-of-the-art con-
traption that looks like an astronaut suit and helmet
crossed with the Michelin Man. Because of its weight and
complexity it takes two men to put it on—or one Sanborn.
Sanborn kneels down and guides Thompson’s feet into
the suit’s black boots, then lashes up a series of Velcro
straps to secure the armor, like a squire working on a
knight. Thompson twists to get his chest protector on.
Eyes tight, brow furrowed, squints into the far distance.
At the conclusion of this lengthy scene, Thompson is killed
by the bomb he was attempting to defuse. After he is buried,
Sanborn goes to the trailer to meet James and very soon there-
after it becomes apparent that the man, as well as the suit, can
be state-of-the-art.
Notably, two nodes or roots are adjacent to standard issue
and state-of-the-artei- (to go) and ar- (to fit together). They
are associated with six compounds—army issue, body armor,
exit wound, circuit board, and explosive ordnance disposal
(EOD)—and several other words in the screenplay including
initiator, suddenly, armaments, armor, army, armored, arms,
disarm, disarmed, disarming, disorderly, and orders.
Derivatives of the root sta- appear in sixty-two of the screen-
play’s 145 scenes. They are found in references to state-of-
the-art shrapnel-resistant suits, tense standoffs, cultural misun-
derstandings, shower stalls, still-burning cigarettes, standard-
issue accommodations, the inability of people and structures to
withstand the force of blasts, soldiers referring to one another
as “stud”, stable medical condition, primitive early-warning
systems, the restoring of order on streets, soldiers in conflict
standing face-to-face, the exchange of long-distance fire with
snipers, hostile and curious bystanders, the ever-present pros-
pect of instantaneous death, and demands for armed adversaries
to “stand down”.
There are also dozens of other verbal references consistent
with the many and varied definitions of ‘stand’ but which do
not use the word itself. In the AHDEL these definitions include
“a mental position from which things are viewed”, to “hold
one’s ground; maintain a position; be steadfast or upright”; to
“occupy a place or location” either physically or figuratively; to
“have or maintain a position on an issue”; to “put up with
something or somebody unpleasant”, a table or “booth where
articles are displayed for sale”, and finally determined and/or
defensive efforts, as when it is said that an army made its (last)
stand at a particular place. Examples of these references include
the repeated descriptions of positions where people stand, par-
ticularly soldiers and their armed adversaries, and positions
Copyright © 2013 SciRes.
from which they are viewed. For example, the acronym POV
for “point of view” appears seventeen times in reference to
robot cameras, a sniper’s hideouts, and from the protagonist’s
spotting scope. There are also references to soldiers attempting
to withstand unpleasantness of service in Iraq and Afghanistan,
as well as the army more broadly. Also, one of the subplots
concerns two vendors—a boy of about twelve and adult male—
who hawk DVDs from a stand inside the military camp. These
many and varied references to standing also have several indi-
vidual and contextual analogs.
On an individual level, a stand can refer to a mental position
from which things are viewed, i.e. an individual’s point of view.
The screenplay goes to great lengths to demonstrat e not only t h at
James possesses a unique point of view, but also that his “st an d”
on operational and personal matters has tremendous repercus-
sions for those around him, both positive and not. On the con-
textual level the soldiers and their interactions in their immedi-
ate environment are a microcosm of the occupation by an entire
army of a much large place, the entire country of Iraq. The
question of where they, as individuals, stand on the Iraq war or
the broader Global War on Terror is not directly addressed.
Instead, the focus remains squarely on their steadfastness in the
fulfillment of duty and in the face of numerous obstacles.
I began this paper with the observation that repetition within
narrative is and has been an important concern for academic
and professionals in the field of screenwriting. I noted that
while there was a consensus on several points concerning the
repetition of themes within narrative, i.e. that they are few in
number, different from but related to the plot, repeated exten-
sively, and abstract. I also noted that most support offered in
support of these points was case-based and anecdotal. With this
study I undertook to demonstrate how word-formation could be
applied to the study of thematic repetition within screenplays. I
applied five types of word-formation to two theme-words—
“hurt” and “locker”. Through an iterative method I identified
over 651 words associated with the two theme-words. Among
these were just over 100 compound words and a few acro-
nyms—e.g. IED and EOD—and one blend word—medivac.
These words, along with their corresponding Old English, Lat-
in, Greek, and Indo-European roots, formed the backbone of a
network, which brought all 651 words into relation with one
Interestingly, the 105 compounds, acronyms, and blends
themselves were found in 98 of the screenplay’s 145 scenes,
just over two-thirds of the total (68%). When combined with
the remaining 546 the inflections and derivatives, this subset of
words was found in all 145 scenes. Even more importantly, the
morpho-etymological network provided insight and direction
on how to identify the underlying theme of the screenplay—
That said, it is important to recognize that this study has sev-
eral limitations, many of which are common to the literature
reviewed earlier. In this study I applied techniques of linguistic
morphology to a contemporary screenplay. Although the proc-
ess entails the use of methods that are fairly uncontroversial,
the approach involves a mixture of qualitative and quantitative
methods. The definitions and etymologies of the words identi-
fied in this analysis are easily verified, but I did exercise choice
n the selection of synonyms of the theme-words. This means
that the results here are not entirely replicable. Still, the general
approach could certainly be used on other screenplays.
A second and related consideration concerns the starting
point of our analysis—the title. Obviously, it would prove chal-
lenging to apply this method to movies with titles such as
WALL-E, The Big Lebowski, Fargo, or Thelma and Louise.
However, in the case of the latter, the word “outlaw” might
serve the same purpose. Regardless of the starting point, the
method outlined here relies ultimately on the application of
word-formation processes and the explicit recognition of the
network of words generated thereby. Future research should
draw on research in social networks (Lopes, 2012) to examine
whether and to what degree the structural properties of such
these morpho-etymological networks are related to measures of
the screenplay quality.
The author thanks Amanda Pendolino, an aspiring TV and
screenwriter, for the extensive, helpful, and supportive com-
ments she provided on an earlier draft of this manuscript.
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