History of the hoo-ah: Tracking an exclamation
Military talk in the last few weeks has run to bunker-busters and daisy-cutters -- and, from the Beltway to Baghdad, a heck of a lot of hoo-ah.
Or, more properly: HOO-AH!
That’s the all-purpose exclamation, affirmation and declaration of pride that started in the Army but has since made its way into the Air Force, and on occasion has even augmented the Navy’s ancient aye-aye. The Marines have their own chest-thumping version -- OOH-RAH! -- but they’ll tell you that an ooh-rah is no more to be confused with a hoo-ah than a caisson is with a quesadilla.
Where these joyful noises come from nobody knows exactly. Theories run the gamut, from a toast in the Indian wars of the 1840s to an abridged version of “heard, understood and acknowledged,” courtesy of eager acronym spinners in the U.S. Department of Defense. All that’s really known is that, for years, the expression was barely heard outside of military bases.
Then in 1992 came the famous volley of hoo-ahs from retired Army Lt. Col. Frank Slade, the blind, alcoholic, tango-dancing officer portrayed by Al Pacino in “Scent of a Woman.” And now, thanks to nonstop coverage of the war in Iraq, it’s all over the place.
“It started out as kind of an exclamation point, and that was just fine,” said retired Brigadier Gen. Creighton Abrams, director of the Army Historical Foundation in Arlington, Va. “Then it became something almost perfunctory, as in saying ‘Hoo-ah!’ instead of saying goodbye. Unfortunately, it’s become a bit much.”
In San Diego, Marine Sgt. William Dullard recalled the thrill of his first ooh-rah, when he and his platoon graduated boot camp.
“Our C.O. dismissed us, we did an about-face and everyone screamed, ‘Ooh-rah!’ ” he said. “It was like a movie moment.”
As administrative chief of the drill instructors school at the Marine Corps Recruit Depot, he has since belted out, and gratefully received, his share of ooh-rahs. His enthusiasm for the expression is such that he even ooh-rahs at home: “When we got approved for a loan, it was, ‘Wow! Ooh-rah!’ ”
Like an Army entrenching tool, the expression has a multitude of uses. It means: “Yes, sir. I’m ready to do the job. Good to go.” And: “Congratulations!” And: “Absolutely, I agree.” And: “Howdy!” And: “Let’s go cover ourselves with glory!” And even: “Have a nice day!”
A spokesman for the Air Force Flight Test Center at Edwards Air Force Base, John Haire can distinguish between front-line hoo-ahs and supply troop hoo-ahs, between the Army’s rendition and the “fuller vowels” of the Air Force version.
“It can be used the way the French use ‘non’ at the end of a sentence to mean ‘Do you understand?’ ” said Haire, an Army veteran as well as a former Navy reservist. “After you’ve briefed somebody on something, you might ask, ‘Hoo-ah?’ ”
In a town hall meeting in August at Ft. Hood in Texas, remarks by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld were peppered by 32 hoo-ahs from the troops, as doggedly chronicled by a military transcriber. The question-and-answer session included this exchange between Rumsfeld and a soldier who said he was from Chicago:
Soldier: Roger, sir. (Scattered “hoo-ah” cheers.)
Audience member: That’s your hometown!
Rumsfeld: That’s my hometown!
In Iraq, there was even a bit of celebrity hoo-ah.
The scene: Night in the desert. Famous correspondent Geraldo Rivera delivers his war report as exhausted soldiers cluster around him. Rivera wraps it up and cues his buddies.
“Hoo-ah!” they yell to a global audience.
Some have suggested the expression derives from the rueful Army adage “Hurry up and wait.” William L. Priest, author of a book on military expressions titled “Swear Like a Trooper,” figures it may date to the British “Huzzah!” of the 1700s. But a favored U.S. Army explanation is drawn from the history of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, known back in 1841 as the 2nd Dragoons.
That year, according to regimental lore, a Seminole chief named Coacoochee attended a banquet after truce talks between his tribe and the Army. New to the custom of toasting, he raised his glass and shouted something that sounded like “Hoo-ah!” -- a cry echoed by the officers and adopted by the regiment.
For a time, hoo-ah was bellowed most notably by elite units like the Army Rangers. But Matthew Seelinger, a historian with the Army Historical Foundation, said he has seen a particularly sharp increase since 2001, when regular troops were issued the black berets formerly worn only by Rangers.
“We were at an event for the Personnel Command, and they were using it there,” he said. “These are people who sit behind desks.”
Last year, there was a brief flurry of publicized e-mails from top Air Force officers suggesting that, for esprit de corps, the service discourage hoo-ah and replace it with “Airpower!”
That idea went nowhere.
“ ‘Airpower!’ is kind of a mouthful,” said Maj. Stacee Bako, a spokeswoman at Vandenberg Air Force Base. “ ‘Hoo-ah!’ is kind of primal.”
Bako, who has hoo-ah’d since she signed on to the Air Force 13 years ago, said the cry rings out around the base all the time. She heard it, for instance, at staff meetings where strategy was planned to continue Vandenberg’s streak in competition for a prestigious Air Force award.
“Every time someone would say ‘Three-peat!’ or ‘Team Vandenberg!’ the response would be ‘Hoo-ah!’ ” she said.
Ooh-rah is the motivational cry of choice at Navy boot camp.
“I’ll even hear it on the phone when I’m talking with a sailor,” said Lt. Commander John Wallach, a spokesman for Naval Training Center Great Lakes, the Navy’s main basic training site. “I’ll say something like ‘Will you be there?’ and he’ll say yes or aye-aye or ooh-rah.”
Ooh-rah and hoo-ah both are heard on Navy bases and on ships at sea but, except for the SEALS’ spirited hoo-ya, the use of such expressions is inconsistent, said Jack Green, a spokesman for the Naval Historical Center in Washington, D.C.
“In the age of sail, the Navy cry was ‘Huzzah’ or ‘Hip, hip hooray,’ ” he said, “but today there’s no real equivalent.”
Whether hoo-ah or its cousins will roar into the language permanently is an open question. Joseph Pickett, executive editor of the American Heritage Dictionary, said he is tracking usage of current military expressions like “embedded” and “deconflicting the airspace” and might put “hoo-ah” on his watch list as well.
“Words like this come up every so often, and every so often they stick around,” Pickett said.
Like a band of commandos, hoo-ah and company have begun roaming lately into commercial territory.
An Army Reserve Web site is called Hooah4health.com. An energy bar developed by M&M; Mars for troops in the field is called the HooAH! bar, with the emphasis optimistically placed on the “ah.”
In Houston, Army veteran Adrienne Brooks runs a needlework business called Hoo-Ah Designs.
“Hoo-ah is as much a part of my vocabulary as hello,” said Brooks, who left the Army as a sergeant and does volunteer work on behalf of women veterans. “Hoo-ah reflects me and my values as a person. It reflects my pride in my service and my pride in veterans.... So, I thought, why not use it for my needlework too?”