Along with blood, sweat and tears, war produces words. A new dictionary records the words American doughboys, dogfaces, GIs and grunts have thought up in every war they fought.
The list goes beyond terms that have crept into civilian vocabularies--jeep, AWOL, gizmo and snafu--to others whose military origins may not be as obvious, such as scuttlebutt, goldbrick, baptize by fire, bite the dust, big wheel and Dear John, for example.
“War Slang: American Fighting Words and Phrases from the Civil War to the Gulf War” by author Paul Dickson, shows that as long as Americans have gone to war they have also taken a sardonic view of the environment of battle--the mud, the food, the enemy, the petty rules and the chances of survival.
Food, death, disfigurement and discharge, this dictionary shows, have been soldier preoccupations forever.
Chow and grub date back to the Civil War. But the GIs of World War II came up with the most slighting terms for food. Fried liver was alligator bait; corned beef was GI turkey. Prunes were army strawberries--and were also known as looseners. Sausages were bags of mystery; beans were commissary bullets; spinach was marsh grass; toast was shingles; sauerkraut was shrubbery.
In the Vietnam War, canned ground beef patties in gravy were called Gainesburgers. In the Gulf War, any unappetizing entree was camel meat.
In the Gulf, MRE stood for Meal Ready to Eat, the successor to the C-ration of World War II. Those forced to consume MREs said the name consisted of three lies. From MREs, it was simple for soldiers to shortcut the name to simply Rees.
Death spawned a vocabulary. Kick the bucket was used in the Civil War. In World War II, to die was to check out. In Korea, the term became to buy the farm or to go to the big PX in the sky. In Vietnam, to waste was to kill but to be killed was to be greased, as in, “Anything you do can get you greased, including doing nothing.”
The body bag of Vietnam was officially called the human remains pouch in the Gulf War.
In World War I, a basket case was a soldier who had lost all four limbs and was brought home as a head and a torso in a basket. The War Department issued a bulletin on March 28, 1919, saying it had no record “of an American soldier so wounded during the whole period of the war.”
Korea produced hit the sack for going to bed and hit the deck for getting up. That war also gave currency to the panic button and to a fatalistic meaning for the term had it, as in “We’ve had it, we’re defeated.” In Korea, something petty was chicken.
American soldiers have been adept at assimilating French terms. In World War I, doughboys said hello by saying barn door, a play on the French bonjour . Goodby was bonswar, from bonsoir . And the French comme-ca was Americanized as cum-sah, meaning what’s its name, what is it? Sergeants still say boo coo when they mean many; it comes from beaucoup .
A short-timer is a soldier whose tour of duty is nearing an end. Getting short was another way of putting it. In Vietnam the short-timer became a single-digit midget when he or she got below 10 days to go. The last day of the tour was known as wake-up, as in, “I’ve got five days and a wake-up.” Then the lucky soldier would fly home on the freedom bird.
Of course, the great war cliche in recent years was generated by Saddam Hussein, who vowed to win “the mother of all battles” in the Gulf. Defense Secretary Dick Cheney said Saddam instead fathered “the mother of all retreats.” The Boston Globe said he had painted himself into “the mother of all corners” and Gen. H. Norman Schwarzkopf crowed over the war’s end at a session that became known as the mother of all briefings.