Laura Dean Bennett
When we thank our veterans for their service, there are a lot of particulars we could mention – first on the list being their willingness to sacrifice their lives for our freedoms and safety.
But we may also want to thank our armed services for their illustrious history of adding hundreds of colorful words and expressions to the English language.
Ever since the Revolutionary War, military slang has eased its way into common usage among civilians, becoming part of the fabric of American and even international culture.
For instance, just about everyone in the world knows the term “G.I.”
Some say that it dates to the turn of the 20th century, when “G.I.” was stamped on military issued trashcans and buckets made of galvanized iron.
During the First World War, the term was still in use, but was rebranded as “government issue” or “general issue.”
Some servicemen in the World War II era started using the term sarcastically to refer to themselves as mass-produced products, which were owned by the government.
Cartoonist Dave Breger, who was drafted into the Army in 1941, is credited with coining the name, “G.I. Joe.”
The comic strip, “G.I. Joe,” was published in Yank, a weekly military magazine that began publication in 1942.
The catchy name caught on, and soon “G.I. Joe” was used to refer to all U.S. soldiers, and was even popular among the soldiers themselves.
In 1944, President Franklin Roosevelt signed legislation providing a range of benefits for returning World War II veterans, including funding for college, home loans and unemployment insurance.
It was officially called the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act, but it quickly became known as the GI Bill and is still called that today.
Furthering the GI Joe mystique, in 1964, the American toy company, Hasbro, launched its “G.I. Joe” military-themed line of action figures, which were an instant success.
The Revolutionary War spawned such terms as lock, stock and barrel – the parts of a flintlock rifle – meaning “the whole thing.”
One of America’s best known names for an old Western hero – “cowboy” – was actually coined in New York State during the American Revolution.
But, unlike today, it had an extremely unsavory connotation.
It referred to roving bands of British irregulars who rounded up cattle to be driven back to British lines, or to ships to be shipped back to the British army stationed in New York City.
They terrorized the citizenry of Westchester County throughout the war.
In the name of the English crown, the “Cowboys” attacked citizens on the streets and in their homes. They would ride in and take everything – supplies and livestock – and it was the fortunate family that escaped with their lives.
The Civil War also supplied many phrases still in use today.
To “bite the bullet” originated as soldiers facing surgery or amputation with no anesthetic were actually given bullets on which to bite. The lead of a bullet was more malleable than other available items and less likely to break a tooth.
To this day, “biting the bullet” means to endure physical or emotional pain with bravery or resignation.
“Damn the torpedoes” was coined by Union Admiral David Farragut after mines – which were then called torpedoes – in Mobile Bay damaged a ship in his fleet.
He said to his sailors, “Damn the torpedoes!” and led the fleet into the bay, capturing Confederate-held Fort Morgan in 1864.
Ever since, the phrase “Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead” has been used by both military and non-military as a rallying cry to fight on, despite the consequences.
We use the term “deadline” these days to refer to a due date or time limit indicating when a job must be finished.
But during the Civil War, a deadline referred to a line surrounding a prison camp, beyond which prisoners attempting escape would be shot. The term left an indelible mark in the minds of the soldiers and the citizenry and has been in use in our daily language ever since.
These days, some may think of Starbucks as the ubiquitous term for a cup of coffee, but for more than a hundred years, Americans have called coffee a “cup of Joe.”
In 1913, when Josephus Daniels was appointed Secretary of the Navy, he abolished the idea of alcohol being served aboard naval ships.
After that, coffee became known to sailors as a “cup of Joe,” and it didn’t take long for the phrase to make its way back home with them.
World War II gave us many terms that have been well used in everyday English since the 1940s, like big wheel – anyone with a lot – or, when used sarcastically – a little authority; and gung ho – the U.S. Marines’ Anglicized version of the Chinese phrase “kung ho,” meaning to work together.
The phrase Roger, or Roger That, dates back to 1941 when, under the original military radio phonetic alphabet system, the letter R was pronounced, “Roger” on the radio.
Saying “Roger” over the radio became shorthand for “Message Received” and evolved into a common figure of speech meaning, “Ok” or “I understand,” and is used constantly over the phone, in email or in face-to-face conversation these days.
Today, the NATO phonetic alphabet says, “Romeo,” in place of R, but “Roger” is still standard for a message was received.
Cannibalize is another WWII term, which was the term used by service personnel, in all branches of the military, who often creatively repaired jeeps, trucks and planes with salvaged usable parts from disabled vehicles and aircraft.
The expression “under the radar” evolved after radar technology came into being during WWII. Military aircraft which would fly beneath Radio Detection and Ranging (RADAR) could go undetected. This military phrase caught on quickly with the public in the 1950s and has been used ever since.
“Caught a lot of flak,” which now means to be harshly criticized, originally came from an acronym for German air defense cannons.
The Germans called the guns Fliegerabwehrkanonen. Flieger means flyer, abwehr means defense, and kanonen means cannon.
Airmen in World War II would have to fly through dangerous clouds of shrapnel created by flak.
The expression, “bought the farm,” thought to originate with WWII jet pilots, when war widows and the families of the soldiers killed in combat were sometimes awarded a death benefit in an amount large enough to allow them to buy a small piece of farmland.
In 1948, a frustrated Air Force Captain Murphy, after testing and re-testing a rocket sled at Edwards Air Force Base, said to his assistant, “If there’s more than one way to do a job and one of those ways will result in disaster, then somebody will do it that way.”
That sentence soon took on a life of its own and turned into the famous “Murphy’s Law:” If anything can go wrong, it will.
During the Cold War we adopted several new military expressions.
For instance, “more bang for the buck,” which was first used when the Air Force was making the case for government funding of ballistic missiles, which, it was argued, could do more damage than a Navy aircraft carrier, and therefore represented a better investment.
The nuclear era brought us another lexicon.
Ground zero – meaning the point directly beneath a nuclear detonation – came into the conversation after 1946 when it was used by American weapons testers.
It’s come to mean the epicenter of a terrible event ever since, and became synonymous with the rubble at the site of the 9/11 attack at the World Trade Center.
“Nuclear option,” meaning an extreme choice to destroy everything rather than compromise, has its roots in the options for deployment of nuclear weapons devised by military leaders during the Cold War.
Viet Nam gave us many expressions still in common usage.
“No Sweat” indicated that a task at hand would be easy to accomplish.
“Lock and load,” meaning get ready – arm and ready your weapon is in common usage to this day.
Afghanistan, Iraq and the War on Terror brought us “boots on the ground,” meaning ground troops deployed in a potential combat operation. After the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the term saw wide use and has ceased to refer exclusively to military operations. It’s now entered the language and is in commonly used to refer to any persons sent out to walk the ground in an area.
Zero-dark-thirty – not every teenager’s favorite time of day – it means really, really early in the morning.
And there is really, really a lot more slang that originated with our armed forces, but we’ll add just one more here:
SNAFU is a relatively modern and extremely popular acronym that’s crossed over into common usage.
Although it might be a little on the salty side for polite conversation, there aren’t too many people who haven’t heard the term, SNAFU.
It’s an old World War II acronym from the Marines that stands for “Situation Normal, All ____ Up.”
Ask any veteran or currently serving serviceman and they will undoubtedly be able to fill in the blank for you.