Mark Peters on War Slang

A recent recruiting commercial for the Army says, "There is a type of strength that doesn't require words." Now, I'm in no position to question any aspect of soldier strength (my biggest daily challenges are dictionary-flipping, sentence-making, editor-harassing, and coffee-slurping), but as a confirmed..

A recent recruiting commercial for the Army says, "There is a type of strength that doesn't require words." Now, I'm in no position to question any aspect of soldier strength (my biggest daily challenges are dictionary-flipping, sentence-making, editor-harassing, and coffee-slurping), but as a confirmed wordmonger, I think this slogan sells the Army short. In fact, one of the more compelling contributions of the military is in the form of words: Soldier slang is an ongoing enrichment of our language, a vibrant lexicon that's a prolific byproduct of war.Without war, no one would ever undermine, skedaddle, or triumph, and it would be impossible to go ballistic about fubars and snafus. In addition to other common words with military origins, there are thousands of terms that never penetrated popular culture. A quick flip through a portion of J.E. Lighter's Random House Historical Dictionary of American Slang provides a taste of the numerous and colorful older terms, such as "hell-jelly" (napalm), "hens and chickens" (lice), "hell-on-the-Hudson" (the U.S. military academy in West Point, New York.), "Ho Chi Minh's revenge" (dysentery or diarrhea), and "horizontal engineering" (sleep). And that's just in H.The trend continues, as the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are producing a mountain of slang that will keep lexicographers busy for decades. Whether soldiers are shortening words (by turning interpreter and interrogator into the more efficient "terp" and "gator"), appropriating words ("death blossom" is borrowed from the 1984 sci-fi film The Last Starfighter), mocking policy (by calling the "surge" the "splurge"), or injecting official names with black humor (Iraq's Camp Anaconda becomes "Camp Bombaconda"), these creative words and expressions show a brainy side of soldiers that's perennial yet underpublicized.Slang has always been hard to define, but in the introduction to his dictionary, Lighter nails one of its key elements: "[The] use of slang undermines the dignity of verbal exchange and charges discourse with an unrefined and often aggressive informality. It pops the balloon of pretence." In some cases, it's easy to tell slang (like "buttmunch") from jargon (like "periorbital ecchymosis," doctor talk for a black eye), but in military lingo, the difference is often blurred. Is "battle rattle"-the term for a soldier's gear, including helmet, Kevlar vest, and gloves-slang or jargon? It's surely job-related, but the rhyme makes it sound slangy, informal, and somewhat balloon-of-pretence-popping.The second characteristic of slang is its social function. Slang bonds groups, separates "us" from "them," and establishes subgroups, too. Over time, there's been a boatload of insults for non-combatants who have it easier than other soldiers, including "hangar pilot," "battalion stallion," and Vietnam's "rear-echelon motherfucker." The most recent and successful word of this type is "fobbit," a blend of hobbit and FOB (Forward Operating Base), for a comfy, base-bound soldier who sees little action.

War slang also points at larger problems with the Iraq war. For example, the lack of protection for soldiers is reflected in several terms, including "pope glass"-a jerry-rigged, cocoon-like shielding reminiscent of the Popemobile. Pope glass is a form of "up-armoring," a word in the redundant spirit of "pre-boarding" and "pre-heating." If your vehicle needs to be up-armored, it needs to be armored, period. Active soldiers aren't known for their war protests, but these terms shine a critical light on dangerous conditions that shouldn't exist.Much war slang acts as a kind of rebellion-against shoddy protection, annoying fobbits, predatory Jodys (see sidebar), and danger. But one expression sums up the whole enchilada in a mix of wit, sarcasm, and acceptance: embrace the suck. Colonel Austin Bay, who used the expression as the title of his book on war slang, defines "embrace the suck" thusly: "The situation is bad, but deal with it." This mantra is also the subtitle of the war blog Kaboom: A Soldier's War Journal, in which it's pseudonymous author Lt. G writes about "living in the suck," and discusses older veterans of "other sucks.""Embrace the suck" is a good example of how war slang overlaps with other slang and nonslang. "Suck" has been slangily used since at least 1971, according to the OED. When soldiers say they're "in the suck," it's reminiscent of the older "in the shit." As an idiom, "embrace the suck" brings to mind "embrace the moment" and "seize the day," with a decidedly less corny sentiment. The exact origin isn't known, but Wayne Glowka's "Among the New Words" column in American Speech suggests that this 2007 San Diego Union-Tribune quote points the way: "Robinson and Rogoni said combat-hardened Marines embrace the ‘suck it up and drive on' mentality even as they endure second and third deployments in some of Iraq's worst war zones."Of all the recent slang, this vivid expression seems custom-made for colloquial use, à la "gung ho." No civilian suck can compare to "the suck," though experts agree that suckishness is as common as oxygen. But if you do use this idiom, take a minute to think about soldiers-and the strength that may not require words but produces a metric crapload of them.

More soldier slang, old and new:

man dress

A term for traditional Muslim dishdasha is part of a broader word trend. Propelled by changes in gender roles and popular examples like Seinfeld's "man purse," "man" has been a productive prefix in recent years, spawning "man-cation," "man-boobs," "man-cave," "manny," and many other testosterone-coated words.

death blossom

Like "fobbit," this is a pop-culture reference, though the source is a bit more obscure: In The Last Starfighter, the death blossom was a weapon that enabled a single ship to kill off an entire armada. In Iraq, the death blossom is an overreaction-to put it mildly-of Iraq security forces to insurgent fire.


Michael Lubinski, who served in Iraq, defines Jody as "the guy doing your girl when you are gone." The term dates back at least as far as the 1944 marching song: "Ain't no use in goin' home / Joady's got your girl and gone… Gonna get a three-day pass / Just to kick old Joady's ass." Soldier blogger Lt. G confirms that the much-hated Jody still roams the home front.

Camp Bombaconda/Mortaritaville

These two terms for any oft-attacked base show the black humor of war slang, where wordplay and danger merge. The play of "Mortaritaville" is one of many examples of soldier slang dipping into popular culture.

the wire

Dating back to 1979 and commonly used today, the wire has been defined as a "fence establishing the perimeter of a military base." But there's far more to this term: More broadly, "inside the wire" is associated with safety, while "outside the wire" is similar to being "in the suck"-you're off the reservation, out of the boat, and in true danger.Mark Peters lives in Chicago and has written about language for Esquire, The Funny Times, New Scientist, and Psychology Today. He wrote about eggcorns in GOOD 010.Illustrations by Elliot Ward