The Origin of Words and Phrases: Military

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Podcast Transcript

The English language has evolved organically, gathering words and phrases from different languages, countries, and communities. 

It should come as no surprise that many of the words in English have come from the military. For centuries, soldiers have developed their own way of speaking and created words to describe their unique circumstances. 

Some of those words and phrases have managed to make it into the wider language, even if the meaning sometimes changes. 

Learn more about the English words and phrases with military origins on this episode of Everything Everywhere Daily. 

In previous episodes of the podcast, I’ve discussed the origin of words and phrases in the English language from many different sources. I’ve done episodes on words that Shakespeare invented, words that originated in sports, and those that have come from India. 

Today, I want to focus on words that came from the military. It doesn’t matter which military or which branch of the military, or even what conflict the words were created. These are just words and phrases that had some military origin. 

I’ll start with a word that doesn’t seem to have any military connotation, yet it had a very specific origin from a military conflict: deadline.

A deadline is just a time limit for something to be done. However, the word was actually created during the American Civil War. 

In particular, it came from the Confederate prison camp at Andersonville, Georgia. It was a notorious place where captured Union soldiers were subject to horrible conditions. In fact, the commander of the camp was one of the few Confederates who was executed for war crimes after the war. 

In the camp, there was a line about 20 feet from the inside wall of the prison. That line was called the dead line. The prisoners were told that anyone crossing the line would be considered to be escaping and would be shot on sight. 

After the war, when the horrors of the Andersonville camp were made public, everyone learned about the “dead line”. 

It wasn’t until the early 20th century that “deadline” went from being two words to one, and it began being used in the way that we are used to using it today, as a time limit. 

Another phrase that has its origin in the American Civil War is “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”

Telegraph lines became quite common during the 1850s in the United States. These wires were strung between poles to keep them off the ground. 

When people saw these lines, they commented that they looked like the lines strung between posts to support grapevines. Telegraph lines began being referred to as grapevines for this reason.

The American Civil War was the first war in which the telegraph was extensively used as a means of communication.

When news of victories and defeats from far away came to soldiers over telegraph lines, they said that they heard it through the grapevine. 

One of the many words to come out of the Second World War is the word blockbuster.

Today, the definition of ‘blockbuster’ means a movie or book that has been a major success. The word was most famously used for a chain of video rental stores in the 1980s and 1990s. 

However, the first use of the word came from British bomb makers in Word War II. 

The standard-size bomb during the war weighed 500 pounds. However, it wasn’t sufficient for many of the missions they were used on.  To solve this problem, the British created a 4,000-pound bomb that could destroy an entire city block. 

These bombs were called blockbusters. 

The word first appeared in print in the November 29, 1942, issue of Time Magazine in reference to Allied bombing in Italy. 

The word was frequently used, and within a year, it began being used to describe surprising news. 

The first use of the term to describe a movie’s success was in the British Daily Mirror on December 22, 1950. An article predicted that Cecil B. DeMille’s Samson and Delilah would be a “box office blockbuster.”

The phrases “Slush Fund” and “Skimming off the Top” are closely related, and both have naval origins. 

On a ship, most meals were cooked in a simple cooking pot. The fat in the meal would often collect at the top of the pot in the form of foam or scum. 

The ship’s cook would skim this off the top of the pot to collect it. What was skimmed off the top was called slush. 

The reason why the cook would skim the slush off the top of the pot and keep it was because the fat was desired by soap makers back in port. They would sell this fat and put the proceeds into what was called a slush fund, which could be used on the crew for things like rum and better food.

Another phrase that comes from naval traditions is “with flying colors.”

If someone were to pass a test or achieve something at a high level, it is said they did so “with flying colors.”

The term comes from a naval tradition in which a ship that was victorious in battle returned to port with its flags, or colors, flying. 

When someone or something was successful, it was compared to a victorious naval vessel in that they did so with flying colors. 

Another phrase we have taken from naval traditions is to “know the ropes.”

When a sailor first joined the navy, they had to learn a lot about Naval life. One of the first things they had to learn to be a part of a crew was a host of knots and riggings that were used on the sails. 

Once a sailor learned the basics of knots and rigging, they were said to “know the ropes.”

The term first appeared in print in the early 19th century and became used by people to describe someone who knows the basics. 

A similar phrase that has almost the same origin is “know the ins and outs.” In this case, the ins and outs refer to the exact same thing: tying knots.

The term chew the fat also had a naval origin. 

One of the staple food items on a ship was salted beef. Salted beef was extremely dry and tough and usually very fatty. 

When sailors received their ration of salted beef, they often had to sit and chew it for a long time.

As they chewed the slated beef, they usually sat around and talked with each other.  So, sitting around gabbing was literally associated with chewing the fat. 

One of the most dangerous things on a ship that could happen during a storm or during combat was to have a loose cannon. 

Cannons were extremely heavy, and if they were rolling around on the deck of a ship, they easily could have killed someone. 

However, the phrase loose cannon was only first used by President Theodore Roosevelt. He said he didn’t “want to be the old cannon loose on the deck in the storm.”

One of the newest branches of the military, the Air Force, has also lent several phrases to the English lexicon. 

One phrase that many people might be surprised to learn has a military origin is the phrase “balls to the wall.” The phrase refers to someone giving their all or their best effort. 

Most people assume that this is something dirty or risque. Actually, it has an origin that is anything but. 

The term comes from the throttle of aircraft, which often had a ball or a knob at the top of the throttle stick. When a pilot wanted a plane to accelerate, they would push the throttle stick forward towards the dashboard. 

Or, they would push the balls to the wall. This is also the origin of the phrase “balls out.”

I should address a common misconception about the origin of this phrase.

If you do a search on this, you will find several sources, including comedian Jay Leno, that give the origin of this phrase as coming from steam locomotives. 

In particular, the claim is that the phrase comes from the centrifugal governor of a steam engine. A centrifugal governor used spinning ball bearings to adjust a valve, limiting the amount of steam entering the engine.

The faster it spun, the further out the balls on the governor would move near the walls of the containing vessel. The faster a train went, the faster the balls would spin and the further out they would go. 

There are a few problems with this explanation. The first is that the centrifugal governor of most steam engineers wasn’t contained in anything. They were out in the open, meaning there was no wall for the balls to get near. 

Perhaps more importantly, the phrase never appeared until the 1970s. It would be very strange for the origin of a phrase that appeared that late to have been from steam engines over 100 years earlier. 

Another phrase from aviation, and this one is much more obvious, is the phrase To Catch A Lot Of Flak.

This reference comes from Allied bombers that flew over Germany in World War II. 

German anti-aircraft guns would fire flack at the bombers, which was clouds of metal from exploding shells in the air. 

Aircraft that hit these flack clouds took incredible amounts of damage. After the war, the term “to catch a lot of flack” was a reference to getting into trouble or getting criticism for something. 

Another phrase, which has a slightly more recent origin, is “bought the farm.” 

This phrase was used by Navy and Air Force pilots beginning in the 1950s in reference to pilots who died while flying their aircraft. 

The origin of the phrase is believed to have come from the fact that pilots who died had a live insurance policy. The policy could, in theory, have allowed their surviving family to pay off their farm. 

There are also a host of nonsense words and acronyms that have come from soldiers and sailors. 

The term Ginormous was used by British solders in WWII. It is nothing more than a portmanteau of the words gigantic and enormous, and it means exactly what you think it means. It’s just a slang phrase for something that is gigantic and enormous. 

After the war, soldiers kept using the phrase back home, and it eventually caught on. 

Likewise, the word Umpteenth came from military usage.

Umpteenth or Umpteen comes from the term Umpty. Umpty was a term used by soldiers during the First World War to represent some unknown large quantity. The name came because it sounds similar to twenty and thirty.

British pilots and ground personnel began using the word clobber in reference to planes that took a lot of damage. When they came back with damage and holes in the plane, it was said to have been clobbered. 

I want to end with two acronyms that began in the military. 

The first of which is the word SNAFU. SNAFU was developed by American soldiers during the war who had a penchant for 

SNAFU stands for: Situation normal, all fouled up….and yet, soldiers would often use more salty language in describing what word represented F in the acronym. 

The other popular acronym is FUBAR. FUBAR stands for “fouled up beyond all recognition. It, too, was popularized during the war and began being used by civilians in the 1970s. 

These words and phrases are only a small sample of the words that have come to us from centuries of pilots, soldiers, and sailors.