7 Idioms from the Military
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.
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.
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.