My parents, as I’ve noted before, were verbal people who liked to talk, liked to (ahem) exercise the language. As a career pilot in the air force, my father exercised a very different language—often acronymical (I made that up) in nature, much of it profane, all of it evocative and sometimes humorous.
Thus we had ASAP (which meant immediately in our military family), and when Daddy went TDY (on a temporary duty assignment) he stayed in the BOQ (bachelor officers’ quarters), even though we kids knew that bachelors were unmarried men. When things were messed up they were FUBAR (an adjective) or we’d created a SNAFU (noun); we were much older before we knew all the words in those. Something that occurred a long time ago happened “when Christ was a cadet”; one of my most special birthday parties was at the “officer’s club” (back, you know, when Christ as a cadet). Military families either lived “on base” or “off base” (we always lived off). If we went shopping we went to the commissary (for groceries) or the BX (for everything else). Daddy was in SAC (the Strategic Air Command) and was “on alert” (“7 on 7 off”). He did two tours of duty in Vietnam. We kids were, of course, air force brats.**
There was pilot talk—like stalls (you really don’t want to know), chopper, touch and go (practice landing), flight suit—and we knew the phonetic alphabet too: Alpha, Bravo, Charlie, Delta, Echo, Foxtrot, Golf, Hotel, India, Juliet, Kilo, Lima, Mike, November, Oscar, Papa, Quebec, Romeo, Sierra, Tango, Uniform, Victor, Whiskey, X-ray, Yankee, Zulu. Gosh, just typing those brings my dad’s voice to my ears. 🙂
That was my family’s personal lexicon—words we used every day. But the military life is a wondrous source of slang, and though much of it is lost (What phrases did soldiers use at Concord? I wonder), we do know that men in the trenches of World War 1 spawned fed up, trench coat, and pushing up daisies, among many others. Because troops from different countries fought side by side, the French word souvenir came to replace memento, and Canadian troops introduced swipe to describe acquiring something by unofficial means. This Daily Mail article says historians Peter Doyle and Julian Walker analyzed thousands of documents—letters from the front, newspapers, diaries—from the period to trace language development:
Mr Walker, who works at the British Library, said: ‘The war was a melting pot of classes and nationalities, with people thrown together under conditions of stress.
‘It was a very creative time for language. Soldiers have always had a genius for slang and coming up with terms.
‘This was a citizen army—and also the first really literate army—and at the end of the war, those that survived took their new terms back to the general population.’
This example is a case of many wartime armies serving together and influencing each other, but soldiers who served far from home—British troops in India, say—picked up local words (pyjamas, bangles, shampoo, veranda, calico, for example).
World War 2 troops introduced big wheel, gremlins, and for the birds—as well as the aforementioned SNAFU and all variants of FUBAR. Vietnam gave us Charlie (Viet Cong = VC = Victor Charlie), in country (on the ground in South Vietnam), klick (for kilometer), friendly fire, and on and on. You’ve heard them in movies, I’m sure.
Slang and jargon serve to draw a people group together; military slang often develops in stressful situations and is used to diffuse or buffer fear. Interestingly, while the military situation is similar from generation to generation, the words to describe it change. For example, the condition we now call post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) has been variously called nostalgia (American Civil War), combat hysteria, war neurosis (Russo-Japanese war), shell-shock (World War 1), combat fatigue, battle fatigue, combat exhaustion (all World War 2 and Korean War); finally Vietnam gave us post-Vietnam syndrome, which has since become defined as PTSD, though that wasn’t coined until 1980. (Here’s an interesting article about that.) What we now call Gulf War syndrome—a physical reaction rather than the psychological reaction called PTSD—has an equally interesting lexicon: from DaCosta’s syndrome (Civil War) to soldier’s heart (WW1), effort syndrome (WW2), and in-country effect (Vietnam).
I bring all this up not just because I am fascinated by words and language (and particularly slang), but also because today is [not, in this second iteration] Memorial Day here in the United States—the day during which we honor the servicemen and -women who have died in the service of our country. We will not forget you.
* This article first appeared on my other blog on 25 May 2015.
** Interestingly, this phrase hails from Great Britain, and was originally an acronym. Wikipedia tells us, “When a member of the British Army was assigned abroad and could take his family, the soldier was listed as BRAT status, which stood for: British Regiment Attached Traveler.”