Few areas of human endeavor have produced more—or more colorful—terms than has the military. Soldiers, sailors, marines, and airmen have over centuries come up with words, phrases, and acronyms to express everything from raw emotion to complex technology. The military is both a distinctive way of life and a community, and a command of its slang is essential to admission to full membership within the group.
Most military slang is almost always familiar only to the troops. Mating mosquitoes, for example, refers to the two-chevron insignia of the Army corporal. Gadget describes an enlisted man or woman who is temporarily promoted to a position of increased responsibility to fill an urgent need, while a panty raid is a foray into enemy territory for the purpose of gathering evidence of adversary activity.
Among the less delicate entries are the day the eagle shits, or payday, and skimmer puke, a submariner’s term for any surface ship sailor. (And then there’s the book’s title, the acronym for What The F-ck).
Many elements of military vocabulary have become part of our national speech: John Wayne, boondocks, attaboy, and hot dog. But whether the words and phrases are the exclusive property of our fighting men and women or are also in general use, the “real” language of the modern military set forth in this lively book embodies a uniquely American attitude and an exuberantly colloquial, unwaveringly honest, and enduringly American grace under pressure.
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About the Author
Alan Axelrod is the author of nearly 150 books on leadership, management, history, career development, general business, and other nonfiction. As founder and president of the Ian Samuel Group creative services firm, he has also ghostwritten, collaborated on, edited and provided consulting services to some of the largest corporations in America. He lives in Atlanta, Georgia.
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Behind the Butt Plate Living the GI Life
Mythical military formation Marines join when they leave the Corps and reenter civilian life: "1st Civilian Division."
Ad hoc acronym for American Forces Radio and Television Service, which broadcasts to U.S. armed forces — in camps, on ships, everywhere — worldwide.
On board U.S. Navy ships, the name for the lockbox in which sailors are welcome to drop anonymous suggestions.
What GIs call Army Times, the official weekly periodical published by the army "for their benefit." Alternatively, the publication is known as Army Slimes.
One's best, most trusted friend, comrade, and confidant. There is no sexual connotation whatsoever. Asshole buddy is a prime example of a dysphemism, the polar opposite of euphemism. Whereas euphemism pretties up an ugly situation or concept with a mild word — "independent thinker" to describe an obstinate moron — dysphemism uglies up a desirable situation or concept with an unpleasant word. This is typical usage of language in the rank-and-file American military.
A reward given to an individual soldier, sailor, airman, or marine or to an entire unit for a job well done. The reward in question might be nothing more than a word of praise from the commanding officer, a weekend pass, or a special treat at mess. Cynical commanders often use the expression petting the animals as an alternative to attaboy.
Rumor has it that the U.S. Navy serves the finest cuisine of any military in the world. Sailors who've eaten USN corned beef, a staple they call baboon ass in the service, will tell you otherwise.
Bag of smashed asshole
Used to describe (generally to his face) a soldier whose uniform is sloppy, dirty, wrinkled, or in some other way grossly unsatisfactory. "Private Pyle, you look like a bag of smashed asshole." By extension, the phrase is sometimes applied to anything — a building, a vehicle, a weapon, a piece of machinery — that is damaged or worn out.
Beyond the obvious, this is a term for midnight as it appears on a twenty-four-hour digital clock: 0000. "I'm on post from balls to ten."
Universal GI pronunciation of barracks. "See you in the bareass, Sarge."
In a U.S. Navy shipboard mess, a slider (small hamburger) topped with a fried egg. ("Gimme a couple of those Barney Clarks!") The etymology of the phrase is obscure in the extreme. Barney Clark (1921 — 1983) was a retired dentist who received a permanent pneumatic total artificial heart designed by Dr. Robert Jarvik and implanted on December 2, 1982, by cardiac surgeon Dr. William DeVries. When implanted, the most advanced and familiar version of the Jarvik heart — the Jarvik 7 — created a prominent circular bulge under the skin of the chest, apparently suggesting to the vivid imagination of hungry sailors the shape of the egg-topped slider.
Behind the butt plate
What a grunt just back from the front lines traditionally answered when asked where he'd been. The butt plate is a metal or rubber strip that reinforces the butt of a rifle stock. If you're behind it, the rifle is in front of you, with its business end pointed toward the enemy.
Bends and motherfuckers
Squat thrusts done by recruits during PT (physical training). The routine is this: stand, squat, place hands on ground, thrust feet back, do a push-up, return to squat, return to stand — and repeat until the DI (drill instructor) is exhausted (from yelling).
The rectangular piece of cloth that hangs from the back of the neck of the uniform of the U.S. Navy enlisted sailor is called a bib. This is not intended as a slur, but dates to the era of wood and sails, when ordinary seamen generally wore their hair long, braiding it and dipping it in tar (used to treat rigging and to seal planks on ship) to keep it from getting caught in block, tackle, and other rigging machinery. When given liberty ashore, a sailor would fashion a "bib" from sackcloth and tie it around his neck to keep the tar off his shirt. The practice became so universal that U.S. Navy command adopted the bib as an official feature of the regulation uniform.
Big PX in the Sky, the
Tongue-in-cheek evocation of heaven. "PX" stands for Post Exchange, an on-base store in which many of life's little luxuries can be bought more or less on the cheap. This phrase is related to, but must not be confused with, Land of the Big PX, a synonym for the United States, typically used by service members stationed far from home.
Blue Dick, the
Personification of the U.S. Navy. "Two weeks in port and no liberty! The Blue Dick strikes again."
U.S. Navy acronym signifying Bend Over, Here It Comes Again and used when a highly disagreeable order, assignment, outcome, or situation unsurprisingly recurs. Seaman Doe: "What? Another day of rust-scraping detail!" Seaman Joe:
Brain housing group U.S. Air Force pilot's pseudo-technical term for the human skull.
Coined in World War II, when U.S. Navy aviators and submariners wore khaki uniforms with brown cordovan leather shoes, the term continues to be verbal shorthand for those personnel. In contrast, a Black Shoe is any U.S. Navy sailor or officer who does not serve on a sub or fly an airplane (and who, back in World War II, would therefore have worn a navy blue uniform with black oxfords).
Bucket of steam
Something seasoned sailors send raw U.S. Navy recruits (and sometimes brand-new ensigns) to fetch on their maiden voyage. This is similar to the order to "Fire a polka-dot flare!"
Generic name for any undesirable duty station in the U.S. Navy.
Press the side of the nose with a finger, bend over, blow hard, and you have a bush hanky: a technique for expelling mucus without the use of a handkerchief (because you have none), your sleeve, or a bandana. The product of a bush hanky is known as a bush oyster.
GI laundry detergent, which, apparently, is scientifically formulated to dissolve clothing, buttons and all. "Throw some more of that button chopper in the wash, would you? I got inspection tomorrow morning."
Sooner or later, every sailor swabs a deck. The unlucky ones are given a bucket and a mop. The lucky ones are issued a Cadillac — a bucket on wheels and equipped with a wringer for that mop. Alternative meaning: The principal form of transport for a United States Marine, "Cadillac" is an old nickname for USMC-issued infantry boots.
Canned pork chops
What marines call beer.
As applied to military life and routine, chicken shit is anything essentially inconsequential that is given exaggerated importance. Soldiers who served in General George S. Patton Jr.'s II Corps in Africa, Seventh Army in Sicily, and Third Army on the Continent complained that the general's insistence on wearing regulation-knotted neckties, regulation leggings, shined shoes or boots, and helmets was not just chicken shit, but elephant shit, which is merely a huge amount of chicken shit.
In the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps, the term applied to any cap or hat.
Most areas aboard U.S. Navy ships are "smoke-free zones," and smoking sailors are confined to designated enclosed areas that quickly fill with a dense nicotine haze. These miasmatic dens are shipboard crack houses.
What marines call "The Corps" when they're in a really bad mood.
The U.S. Army Air Forces flat service cap as worn in World War II. Fliers found the cap's visor highly useful, but they removed the stiffener that gave the top of the hat its flat surface so that they could wear their headsets (headphones) over the hat. The result was a distinctive fashion statement that was widely admired by women and envied by members of nonflying service branches.
DA Form 1
"Department of the Army Form 1," the civilian name for which is toilet paper.
Day the Eagle shits, the
Payday. As understood by soldier and civilian alike, "the Eagle" personifies the United States government. In civilian company, a soldier might substitute screams for the earthier word.
In the days of sail, enlisted sailors were often short on cash and could apply for an advance on their pay. This done, they were obliged to work off the period of time covered by that advance. The period was referred to as dead horse, and the act of working during this period was called beating a dead horse. The variant expression, flogging a dead horse, was first reported in 1867, when the British member of Parliament John Bright remarked that trying to nudge a conservative Parliament from its noninterest in the democratizing Reform Act of 1867 was like trying to "flog a dead horse" to make it pull a load. The Oxford English Dictionary reports the first printed occurrence in an 1872 newspaper article. This said, John Stephen Farmer and William Ernest Henley, in Slang and its Analogues Past and Present (privately printed in 1891), reported that dead horse, meaning work performed for pay in advance, was in use by the seventeenth century, and they cited as proof this sentence from a work called Nicker Nicked, published in 1669: "Sir Humphrey Foster had lost the greatest part of his estate, and then (playing, as it is said, for a dead horse) did, by happy fortune, recover it." Farmer and Henley also noted that, in the Royal Navy, seamen, "on signing articles" (beginning an enlistment), sometimes received an advance on pay, celebrating "the term of the period thus paid for by dragging a canvas horse, stuffed with straw, round the deck and dropping him into the sea amidst cheers."
Death From Within
U.S. Army airborne (paratoop and helicopter) units use the motto "Death From Above" to describe what they deliver to the enemy. Throughout the rest of the army, however, the motto has been changed to describe what military chow delivers to a GI's GI tract: Death From Within.
Outmoded navy term for heaving something overboard — "deep six" being the lowest fathom (1 fathom = 6 feet) above the ocean floor. Today, a sailor discarding something into the ocean is more likely to report that he or she is just doing a float (or flotation) check.
Army slang for fingers, which are found attached to dickskinners (hands) and which should never be put in one's dicktrap (mouth).
A highly euphonious acronym that poses the rhetorical question, Does It Look Like I Give A Flying Fuck?
The familiar white sailor cap worn by enlisted U.S. Navy sailors through the rank of petty officer first class.
Any sailor assigned an especially menial task. The origin of the term is found in the age of wooden ships, when British sailors applied the word to describe such staple rations as soaked sea biscuits and pease pudding.
An extreme short-timer — a service member with fewer than 100 days before his or her hitch is up or before he or she rotates out of a combat area and gets back to "the world."
Examine very, very closely. "Lieutenant, give this report the double-O before you send it to the colonel." Some authorities believe the expression is an initialism for Once Over, but because it means a close examination, it is most likely a reference to a person's two eyes.
Navy slang for either of two items on the mess menu: chicken cacciatore or chicken Ã¡ la king, both of which feature birds variously deconstructed.
An army infantryman. Every job in the U.S. military is identified by an MOS (Military Occupation Specialty) code number. An infantryman is MOS 11B ("elevenbravo"), b is the first letter of bang, and bang-bang pretty much sums up what someone with this MOS does for a living. Alternatives to eleven bang-bang include eleven boom-boom and, more gruesomely, eleven bulletstop. During the Vietnam War era, eleven bulletstopper was also commonly used to designate an infantryman.
A verb meaning to hastily and superficially "beautify" a facility in order to impress a visiting dignitary. To eyewash typically means cleaning, slapping on a coat of paint, and doing some quick landscaping. "Captain, eyewash the company barracks before the end of the day. General's inspecting tomorrow."
A military hazing ritual in which the victim is compelled to don, in rapid succession, all of his complete uniforms, including dress, field, fatigue, summer, and winter. The uniforms as well as the victim's quarters (or bunk and footlocker) are closely inspected. The rationale for the fashion show is to create a stressful situation that tests the mettle of the subject/victim.
In sailing lore, Fiddler's Green is a kind of paradise, into which deceased sailors are welcomed. It is a lush and pleasant place of everlasting merrymaking and tireless dancing to fiddle tunes that go on for eternity. The earliest printed mention occurs in an 1832 sailor's tale, which describes Fiddler's Green as located "nine miles beyond the dwelling of his Satanic majesty." Today, many U.S. Navy petty officers' clubs are named "Fiddler's Green," and the phrase is also used in the U.S. Army and the Marine Corps. The Cavalry Journal (April 1923) published "Fiddler's Green and other Cavalry Songs by JHS," which cites a campfire tale told by Captain "Sammy" Pearson in the Medicine Bow Mountains of Wyoming, picturing Fiddler's Green as the place dead cavalry troopers go. To this day, cavalrymen speak of the dead as having passed on to Fiddler's Green. With far greater irony, the name has been applied to at least one Vietnam-era forward base (Fire Support Base, Military Region III, manned by elements of 2d Squadron, 11th Armored Cavalry) and, much more recently, a USMC firebase in Helmand Province, Afghanistan.
Eating utensils. The term is universal throughout the military but most often heard in the U.S. Navy.
This acronym, common in the Australian armed forces and borrowed by Americans serving with the Aussies during the Vietnam War, stands for Fuck, I'm Good — Just Ask Me. An expression of intense self-confidence at once sardonic, ironic, swaggering, and smart alecky, it is typically American, even if it is quintessentially Australian.
Medieval European society recognized three "Estates of the realm." The Third Estate was made up of nonpeasant commoners; the Second Estate, the nobility; and the First Estate, the clergy. In some quarters of the U.S. military, members of chaplain service are referred to as the First Estate.
To lie down and sleep — usually for the purpose of a brief nap. "Let me flake out in my fart sack for a half hour, then wake me up, corporal."
Used as a noun in the U.S. Navy, float is a synonym for any cruise assignment. "Is this your first float, Nugget?"
Fluff 'N' Buff
It's not your father's army or marines. Through the Vietnam Era, these services were notorious for a spit-and-polish approach to uniforms, from fatigues to Class A dress. One of the reforms in the All-Volunteer Force (AVF) was aimed at making a military career more palatable by reducing the level of chicken shit (see page 14), including the apparently ceaseless demands that shoes be spit shined and uniforms neatly pressed. These days, the camouflage and other BDU (Battle Dress Uniforms) most troops wear most of the time are not pressed but merely kept clean (washed) and fluff dried without ironing. Footwear — often desert boots, in any case — is no longer spotlessly shined, but merely buffed into a decent appearance.
One traditional nickname for a U.S. Navy sailor is squid (or squiddie). A sailor who has met his demise by accidental electrocution — an occupational hazard when high-voltage electrical equipment is operated in the presence of seawater — is called fried calamari.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Whiskey Tango Foxtrot"
Copyright © 2013 Alan Axelrod.
Excerpted by permission of Skyhorse Publishing.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Table of Contents
Book (1), Slang, Military,
ONE: Behind the Butt Plate Living the GI Life,
TWO: Cake Eaters and Chicken Guts Military Courtesy and Command Authority,
THREE: After Women or Liquor Conduct Unbecoming but Completely Understandable,
FOUR: Bang-bang, Beans, Bullets, Bandages & Badguys Fighting Words,
FIVE: Burn Before Reading Military Intelligence and Other Oxymorons,
SIX: Broken Arrows and Spastic Plastic Language Built to the Highest Military Specs,
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