7 Idioms from the Military

By Mark Nichol

Military terminology and slang is a rich source of expressive expressions. Most, like “bite the bullet,” are clichés, but some, such as “bomber crew,” are unusual (so much so, sometimes, that in writing they may require a partial explanation).

1. Awkward Squad

This obscure but oh-so-useful phrase originated in military usage to refer to a unit of particularly inept recruits. Now, in civilian usage, it denotes an incompetent or obstructive group in a company or organization.

2. AWOL

The acronym for “absent without leave” (pronounced “AY-wall”), sometimes spelled AWL (though pronounced the same), refers to the status of military personnel who desert their posts. It now refers in general to somebody who literally abandons a location, mentally disengages, or figuratively rejects a previously held conviction or opinion.

3. Bite the Bullet

This expression refers to the tradition of giving a wounded soldier a bullet to bite on in the absence of an anesthetic while performing surgery on him on or near the battlefield. (An alternative theory refers to tearing a cartridge open with one’s teeth, but this wasn’t dangerous or difficult.) In casual use, biting the bullet is facing an unpleasant and/or difficult task.

4. Bomber Crew

This phrase refers to the cinematic cliché of the ethnically mixed crew of a military aircraft, familiar to fans of movies filmed and/or set during World War II: The characters, whether representing the crew of a bomber, soldiers in a platoon, or sailors on a ship, typically included such disparate types as a Jew from New York, a Midwestern farm boy, a tough guy from some rust belt metropolis, a Southerner, and so on. The expression could be used, for example, to refer to the “bomber-crew inclusiveness” of a poster depicting an ethnically diverse array of people.

5. Close Ranks

In military formations, to close ranks is to compress the mass of soldiers after marching or standing apart, generally to create a more formidable offensive or defensive formation. In figurative terms, “closing ranks” now refers to an act of solidarity such as uniformly supporting someone or something subject to criticism.

6. Rank and File

In marching and standing formation, soldiers standing abreast are said to be in the same rank, while a line of troops located from front to back is a file. (From the idea that the closer one is to the front of a marching column or a standing unit, the higher one’s place in the military hierarchy, came the use of the word rank to denote a degree of authority.) Now, “rank and file” is used figuratively to refer to the “foot soldiers” — the ordinary employees as opposed to the leaders — of an organization.

7. Scuttlebutt

This term derives from the butt, or cask, that held drinking water on sailing ships; it was scuttled, or provided with a hole in the top, so that water could be drawn. In the same way that office workers gather around a water cooler to share gossip, the scuttlebutt was the locale of idle talk among mariners. Hence, scuttlebutt came to refer to the gossip itself, and the usage was extended to civilian environments.

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17 Responses to “7 Idioms from the Military”

  • ApK

    I’d never heard “Bomber Crew” used like that, but I like it!

  • Bill

    In grad school for journalism a professor told us that AWOL does not stand for “absent without leave” but “absent without official leave.” As “without” is one word, that does make sense. However, as the professor noted, even few military people know and the meanings are close enough that it doesn’t really matter.

  • John White

    Most software engineers in the U.S. are familiar with the filename foo.bar, derived from the military term FUBAR. This military acronym, invoked often by the rank and file, stands variously for “fouled up beyond all repair” and “fouled up beyond all recognition.”

    Oh, and I think maybe they use another word instead of “fouled” sometimes.

    I don’t know whether the term is still in use, but I suspect that the conditions that led to its invention have not gone away with time.

  • Patrick

    I am a pilot and our company operated a Mitsubishi MU-2J twin-engine turboprop. Aviators that know this aircraft may know it as “FLUF” which stands for “Fat Little Ugly Fellow.” I know there is a distinction between Idioms and acronym. Perhaps this would be a good DailyWritingTips subject.

  • Michael

    Like John White, I remember FUBAR and used it regularly during my 20 years of military life, along with SNAFU, situation normal, all fouled up, although I often used another word for fouled.

    There is also FIGMO, which is the point at which you quit worrying about your future with one unit or position because you’ve received your orders for a new duty assignment – F___ It, Got My Orders.

    I rarely hear civilians use it, though and have never seen it in fiction. Shame. It really does capture a unique attitude.

    Cheers

  • Bill (again)

    John’s comment about another word being used for “fouled” reminded me of the acronym SNAFU = Situation Normal: All Fouled Up. This acronym’s origin is attributed to United States Marine Corps soldiers in World War Two.

  • Roberta B.

    @John White
    Yes, FUBAR still is used quite frequently by the rank and file of government workers who often have to sort out or interpret the mess …..and they use the alternative word more often than not. FUBAR is more common than SNAFU (situation normal all fouled up), which may have declined in popularity over time, but also is used with the other word.

  • Sally

    How about ‘Forlorn Hope,’ derived from Dutch* ‘Verloren Hoop = Lost Troop,” the ‘suicide squad’ who went in first and often didn’t come out?

    *From the 14th to the 18th centuries, the Dutch were often rivals of the British in everything from the wool trade to colonization (although this rivalry abated somewhat during the reign of Elizabeth I).

  • Sally

    Oh, and in the Australian military the official term is ‘AWL.’

    Elderly friends – WWII veterans – of my father’s remember the polite acronym ‘SNLR’ in a person’s service record. Standing for ‘Services No Longer Required,’ this was pronounced ‘Snarler’ and was a polite way of saying that the person had been discharged for ‘dubious’ conduct (often, but not necessarily, homosexual -yes, it was illegal here too in those days).

    Doubtless the Wizards of Wall Street, the City and Deutscher Bank would find the latter term useful in describing the millions of people they have ‘had’ to fire in the course of their depredations.

  • palani c

    some words used in army like
    osl- over stay leave who not rejoin his duty intime he continue his leave with out permission

  • Deng Madut Akec

    Thanks for the post, I had learned these military words, but scuttlebutt is new to me. Good to know.

  • Ivan

    AWOL in the military stands for “Absent without Official Leave”.

  • Dena Miller

    Then there is OHIO…over the hill in October (going AWOL).

  • Cathy

    I sent these to my daughter who is a lieutenant in the Navy. She wrote back, “There’s a lot of less obvious terms that originated in the military that people don’t even realize, such as calling coffee a cup of Joe. That originated in the Navy. Also, “not enough room to swing a cat”, “three sheets to the wind” and a lot of others.”

  • Cathy

    More from my daughter:
    Cup Of Joe – Josephus Daniels (1862-1948) was appointed Secretary of the Navy by President Woodrow Wilson in 1913. Among his numerous reforms of the Navy was the abolition of the officers wine mess. From that time on, the strongest drink aboard navy ships was coffee and over the years, a cup of coffee became known as “a cup of Joe.”

    “Not enough room to swing a cat” – I found this out when I toured the oldest commissioned warship when I was in England. They would chain the guys being disciplined for stealing, etc., to the cannons on the gundecks and the ceilings were really low. When it came time to get their beatings from the Boatswains mates, they had to take them above decks, because they used whips called “cat of nine tails,” which had nine leather straps with knots tied on the end. Since the ceilings were low they didn’t have room to swing them, thus “not enough room to swing a cat.”

    “Three sheets to the wind” – Derived from sailing ships. The ‘sheet’ in the phrase uses the nautical meaning of a rope that controls the trim of sail. If a sheet is loose, the sail flaps and doesn’t provide control for the ship. Having several sheets loose (“to the wind”) could cause the ship to rock about drunkenly. Before settling on the standard usage of “three sheets,” a scale was employed to rate the drunkenness of a person, with “one sheet” meaning slightly inebriated, and “four sheets” meaning unconscious.

    There are a lot more, those are only 3.

    LT Nicole Rotunda, USN
    Officer Recruiter

  • Stephen Thorn

    An older idiom was “See the Elephant.” This Civil War-era term, used by Confederate (and, for all I know, Union) soldiers, began as a reference to traveling circuses. In the circus the most bizarre animal was generally an elephant, so that was the exhibit the show kept until last so you’d stay for the whole show. Thus, “seeing the elephant” was the climax and finale of the circus. In military slang it meant an act, as in a charge towards the enemy, that was likely to result in your death. “C’mon, Jed, time to go see the elephant,” would have meant you and Jed were about to charge the enemy lines and you knew your chances of survival were slim indeed.

    There’s also “lock and load,” referring to one’s firearm being loaded, cocked, and ready for action. It has entered into civilian usage as an indicator of readiness for a task. “Lock and load, Harriet; time to give your speech to the investors.”

    “Keep your powder dry” wasn’t strictly military, as civilians needed to keep their gunpowder dry and usable as well, but it was used as a goodbye expression. “Take care, Lucas. Keep your powder dry.” In some instances it is still used that way today.

    “Horse soldiers” and “dog soldiers” both refer to the common GI but now also refer to the office grunts (low-status employees who do the dirty work).

    There are numerous other examples, of varying degrees of common usage: minefield (a situation fraught with perils), rattling one’s sword or sabre (threatening aggression or war, usually used for a belligerant government), falling on one’s sword (taking the blame for the good of another person or the company), etc.

  • Eddie Monaghan

    There is BOHICA/Bend Over Here It Comes Again
    FIDO/F*%K It, Drive On
    As of 2006 we still used FUBAR and SNAFU.

    Some others, which can get irritating as it’s over used, are as follows:

    Pop Smoke- A term that means you’re tossing a smoke grenade out to mark your location for a helicopter ride back to base, or to obscure the enemy’s vision of you.

    Tighten your shot group- Meaning to straighten you out with attitude, work, or literally shooting.

    E&E- Escape and Evade, casually said when you’re letting your squad go unofficially for the day. “Alright, E&E guys, be at formation at 1700”.

    And… That’s all I can think of for the moment.

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