When I think about it now it seems a little crazy, but about eight years ago, I talked to an Armed Forces recruiter about joining up and becoming an Army linguist. I even went as far as to take the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery). Sure, I would have had to go through boot camp, but then my professional training would have sent me to Monterey, California (oh, the horror!) for a year and a half to learn how to speak another language, break codes, or gather intelligence.
Ultimately, however, I knew I would not be suited for the Army. I’ve never been a “rebel”, per se, but I have a life-long abhorrence for being stuck and taking orders, so before it went any further, I splashed a metaphorical glass of water in my face, came to my senses, and did not join the military.
Every once in a while, though, I wish I had joined, if for no other reason than for the opportunity to be in a linguistic gold mine. I am not just talking about the training, although that certainly was a temptation. I’m talking about every day linguistic innovation that exists in the branches of the Armed Forces. I wanted to be an insider and know the shibboleths, learn the banter, and see innovations in action.
Every profession has its jargon that is more or less exclusive to that field. Sometimes there are leaks into mainstream English which then get generalized to the point that we don’t even know where the phrases originated. For example, whenever someone is ‘thinking outside of the box’, that person is using a phrase that began its life being used by a self-selected few in business, and has since aged into such a cliché that irony abounds in its wake.
This jargon helps to do two main things: maintain solidarity within the group, and exclude those beyond the boundaries of the group. This concept extends not only to professional jargon, but often regional, socio-economical or ethnic dialects of a language. The military is certainly no exception, and in fact, it arguably produces some of the more creative jargon to have come out from any other profession (with the possible exception of baseball terms in American English).
In 2007, Austin Bay released a handbook of military speak called Embrace the Suck: A Pocket Guide to Milspeak. More than just a handbook of terms, however, this book tried to explain how and why many phrases are invented by members of the military: “Warrior slang…has a peculiar appeal and influence. That’s understandable. Waging war is a risky, all-encompassing endeavor physically, emotionally, and psychologically. It displays humankind at its best and at its worst, and the warfighter’s slang reflects the bitter, terrible, and inspiring all of it…A little verbal bravado and swagger has genuine utility.”
My brain likes to categorize. That’s just the way it works. Sometimes it sorts out patterns without even telling me until it’s all done. While looking at a list of military slang, I found that I was doing it again and noticing different classes of slang.
Some of the terms we use that come from soldiers are quite colorful: bum-fuck Egypt, clusterfuck or gaggle-fuck, fubar (fucked up beyond all recognition), and snafu (situation normal, all fucked up). Among soldiers, many of these terms are referred to using the NATO alphabet. For example, Whiskey Tango Foxtrot stands for WTF, or what the fuck. Charlie Foxtrot is often used instead of clusterfuck. It seems only natural that the word fuck is nearly omnipresent in military situations. Not only is it emotionally satisfying, but according to the intrepid Mythbusters, cursing also apparently helps to make pain more tolerable. There’s got to be a lot of pain and frustration among men and woman who were sent away from their families and their country to serve half-way across the world.
In addition, along with OK, our lovely, expressive, grammatically flexible word fuck is generally understood around the world, even in some unlikely situations. I might, for example, relate the story of a rough Mediterranean Sea, a rollicking ferry ride from Cyprus, and a woman who had just gotten soaked to the skin by wave crashing over the boat. Let’s just say this woman expressed her frustration by yelling…a certain phrase…rather at the top of her lungs…while holding on to a rope for fear of being washed overboard. A dozen green-faced Turks, who spoke no other English, then responded with weak cheers, applause, and a few murmurings of the same…certain phrase. They apparently agreed with me…I mean, her.
Another set of military terms includes words that are certainly expressive, but perhaps less explicit: balls to the wall, boot camp, chow, grunt, head (for toilet), jacked up. They describe situations, events, objects, and people perhaps less crudely than the previous group of words, but with a gritty realism that a soldier would probably have to maintain to stay alive and sane. These terms don’t sugarcoat the situation and allow soldiers to deal with their reality, however difficult it may be.
Last, there are some very common phrases that we use with perhaps no clue at all that they first arose in a military situation: bought the farm, good to go, squared away, on the double, ditch (as in ‘to leave quickly’), and the inimitable suck it up, or its modern variant, embrace the suck. These are some of my favorite terms because they are so creatively descriptive, yet oblique at the same time. Take the case of a term that had not made it into mainstream English (at least not yet): LPCs. This stands for “leather personnel carriers”, or boots. This term fulfills the function of excluding outsiders from the group, but it also fosters solidarity among the insiders as they jokingly refer to the dehumanization that takes place in a military situation. This suppression of individuality may be vital in a combat situation when predictability is needed to keep everyone alive; however, in peace or downtime, a person may suffer from that lack of individual expression. Instead, the creativity reveals itself in the jargon.
The beauty of today’s communications technology is that I can research and learn about this rich source of linguistic innovation from the comfort of my own desk chair while the cats are in the hallway destroying yet another toy mouse. And I never even had to wear a gas mask.