Former Pulitzer Prize winning columnist and presidential speechwriter William Safire once observed that “English is a stretch language; one size fits all.”
In the spirit of our elastic language, it is interesting to note that some of the military’s lingo and phrases have become part of everyday civilian speech.
What follows are 22 of the many words and phrases used in our society today. Or more accurately, military lingo used by civilians.
Military Lingo Used By Civilians
- Avant-garde: Currently used to describe something new or eccentric, this French word referred to a small party of troops that led the way for others.
- Bikini: In 1964 the United States tested a nuclear weapon on the Bikini Atoll in the Pacific Ocean. At the same time, French swimwear designer Louis Reard chose the name “bikini” for his new two-piece swimsuit believing the style would be explosive.
- Bite the Bullet: To do this is to face something unpleasant, just like wounded soldiers and sailors would literally bite a bullet to bear the pain.
- Blockbuster: The word alludes to the 4,000 pound “blockbuster” bombs used on German cities by the British during World War II. Today it denotes a popular movie or book that is a great success.
- Boots on the Ground: Used by today’s soldiers, politicians and police officers, the phrase is credited to Army General Volney Warner in 1980 during the Iranian hostage crisis.
- Bitter End: This bit of military lingo used by civilians is actually a naval term. A “bit” is a post on the deck of a ship around which rope is wrapped. When the rope is pulled “to the bitter end,” it means there is no more rope left.
- Caught a lot of flak: Originating from German anti-aircraft measures during World War II, the term is now equated with abusive criticism.
- Chewing the Fat: The informal chats people engage in comes from the time when sailors salted beef, as was standard fare at sea. One piece could often be chewed for hours, much like conversations over a backyard fence.
- Deadline: Often synonymous with a “due date” or “time limit” for the completion of a news article, the word had a much more literal meaning. During the Civil War, prisoners were confined to a pen and told not to cross a line on the ground. If they did, they were shot dead.
- Devil to Pay: The “devil” was the longest seam on a wooden ship’s hull, and caulking was done with “pay” or pitch. Then and now, to have the “devil to pay” is an unpleasant job.
- Face the Music: The disgraceful dismissal of an officer sometimes features his final march accompanied by a drum cadence, much like when one faces the consequences of an action.
- Feeling Blue: If a ship lost its captain or an officer, it would fly blue flags and have a blue band painted along the hull while returning to port.
- Hot Shot: Suggestive of an individual who is self-important, the phrase comes from the use of heated cannonballs by artillery or naval gunfire to set the enemy ablaze.
- In the Trenches: During World War I much of the fighting was done in trenches. Today it refers to individuals who quietly work hard toward an objective.
- Loose Cannon: President Theodore Roosevelt coined the phrase when he said he did not “want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm.” Some current public individuals fit this description.
- Murphy’s Law: We’ve all heard this one, and it is usually right; “If anything can go wrong, it will.” This phrase is attributed to Captain Edward Murphy in 1948 after a failed rocket sled test at Edwards Air Force Base.
- On the Double: I heard this a lot from my father as a youngster, and both civilians and military members know it means to get a move on. Now!
- Slush Fund & Skimming off the Top: The current fraudulent setting aside of money comes from a 19th century term. Back in the day, cooks on British ships sold “slush,” the salty fat, “skimmed off the top” of boiling pots of meat to soap makers.
- Taken Aback: This phrase of military lingo used by civilians implies a surprise. It stems from when a sailing ship was caught in a sudden shift of wind, blowing the sails back against the masts.
- Wallop: A word denoting a good beating, it originates from the 1500s when Admiral John Wallop of the English navy was sent to Normandy to destroy a number of coastal towns and villages in retaliation for an earlier attack.
- With Flying Colors: This phrase means that one has done well – just as it did when a Navy ship returned to home port after battle with its flags, or colors, flying.
The Future of These Phrases
The interplay of words and phrases between military personnel and civilians is an on-going process that will continue to enliven the English language.
For an interesting read on this evolution of the language, check out this article by former Marine pilot Carl Forsling.