Military Terminology and the English Language

© Adele Wilson  2008


1.     Warfare and the Military Greatly Impact the English Language:

1.1       Introduction:

For better or worse, the language of the military and of warfare in particular has greatly impacted the English language. In recent years, numerous dictionaries have been compiled in the attempt to ascertain and record the often ephemeral vocabulary associated with specific wars—not only weapons terminology and technical jargon, but also the colorful slang that inevitably characterizes every war. As Thomas E. Murray remarks in his discussion of naval fighter pilot terminology, “The study of English in [the twentieth] century has shown that members of the armed services…are especially prone to linguistic creativity,” whether soldiers, sailors, or flyers (126). Wayne Silkett adds that “few specialized vocabularies have been as similarly borrowed, copied, and altered as has the military vocabulary” (13). That military language is exceptionally productive  is not, perhaps, surprising; it makes sense that “each crisis creates its own vocabulary” (John Mason in Murray, 126). Moreover, since the armed forces and its component units constitute definitive “subcultures or social groups” that “daily share a common set of experiences and, perhaps, even a world view,” they “can be expected to share a common lingo” (Murray, 126).

This article will begin with a brief discussion of the general grammatical trends in English word formation as compared to the grammatical trends manifested in the development of military neologisms. From there, several notable ways that military terminology fulfils both practical and ideological means will be considered. Such practical and ideological means range, for instance, from the fostering of community among servicemen, to the adoption of an abundance of timesaving acronyms, to the development of neologisms that mask violence of warfare—whether in the service of bolstering a soldier’s psychological state, giving a particular ideological spin to wartime news reports, or associating combat with sexuality. This article will focus throughout on the incredible productivity and flexibility of military terminology. It will culminate in considerations of the appropriation of military discourse into the public sphere and the infiltration of military terminology into other specialized vocabularies. Topics will include the overlap between military and hospital terminology and the use of military metaphors in the business sphere, especially to characterize business women. In discussing these loci of linguistic creativity, an assortment of military terms will be given, with a focus on terms coined during the Gulf War.

2.     Trends in English Word Formation:

2.1.                   The Structure of Neologisms In General:

Before discussing war terminology specifically, it is helpful to touch on a few general trends in English word formation.  Linguist John Algeo, who has been co-editor of a regular collection of neologisms in the journal American Speech for over a decade, clarifies that “word change is very rapid, compared with grammar….Words come into being, change their uses, and pass out of existence far more readily than either sounds or grammatical constructions” (Algeo, 55.4, 264).* In “Where Do All the New Words Come From?” (55.4), Algeo devised a method to ascertain the sources for new words from 1963 to 1973 and found that in this decade-long period, 63.9 percent of new words were composites—in other words, “compounds or forms derived by affixation” (notably this is also the chief source of new words as far back as the Old English period). Second to composites, Algeo found that 14.2 percent of the neologisms of the sample decade were shifted forms: “words…used in a new meaning and sometimes as a new part of speech, usually without any change of form.” Only 9.7 percent of new words were shortenings; 6.0 percent were borrowings; and finally, 4.8 percent were blendings. Additionally, of all the new words sampled in Algeo’s study, 76.7 percent turned out to be nouns, 15.2 percent were adjectives, 7.8 percent were verbs, and 0.3 percent were other parts of speech (270-71).

*The three works by Algeo referenced in this article will be distinguished parenthetically by volume and issue number since they were all written for the “Where Do All the New Words Come From?” section of American Speech.

2.2.                   The Structure of Military Neologisms:

In Thomas E. Murray’s 1986 study “The Language of Naval Fighter Pilots,” Murray notably finds that his own survey of naval fighter pilot terminology is consistent with general trends in English word formation as defined by Algeo in “Where Do All the New Words Come From?”: nearly three quarters of the terms in Murray’s study are nominals, the remainder adjectives and verbals. By far “the most numerous characteristic” of the words in Murray’s glossary are compounds (Murray, 127).

3.     Factors Impacting the Development of Specialized Military Terminology:

3.1       Rivalry and Social Cohesion:

3.1.1       The Example of Naval Fighter Pilots:

Murray’s study goes beyond confirming that the coining of naval fighter pilot terminology reflects wider trends in English word formation. Predictably, naval fighter pilots are shown to have “their own specialized vocabulary.” However, Murray uncovers that this vocabulary “bear[s] only a slight resemblance to all the service lingo that has preceded it…or to its contemporary, the language of air force fighter pilots” (Murray, 126). Murray adds that

Even taking into consideration any traditional rivalry between the navy and the air force, it seems a bit peculiar that their members would not have more in common linguistically. Given that they must perform the same or similar kinds of flight maneuvers with similar kinds of equipment, and that their general goals regarding the enemy are the same, it must be the case that their self-imposed rules of non-fraternization with members of the other service are so strongly enforced that dialectal divergence has been created.” (Murray, 126)

3.1.2       The Example of Infantry:

Rivalries between military subgroups are nothing new. Take the term infantry, for example. Wayne A. Silkett explains that, “While details are obscure of the first use of infant to describe foot soldiers, the term was probably coined by cavalrymen as one of abuse.” Since early cavalrymen (who, notably, were associated with chivalry, nobility, knights, and the aristocracy) rode on horseback, they “could easily create the primitive analogy that since infantry could move only at a foot’s pace and could not carry their own baggage and supplies to last any length of time, therefore cavalry equated to adult, the foot soldier to infant” (Silkett, 13).

Clearly, the armed forces’ organization into different units and sub-units—and the longstanding rivalries deliberately cultivated among them—in fact aids in the productivity of military language. Furthermore, the creation of specialist military vocabulary, including slang, works “to identify their users as members of a specific group (and, conversely, their nonusers as nonmembers), thus creating or intensifying psychological and social unity among the group’s members.” Common lingo creates social cohesion (Murray, 127).

3.2        New Technology and Linguistic Economy:

Other factors also come into play in the development of group-specific military terminology. Because of influxes of new technology, “new terms are rapidly being created, and different factions within the military no longer simply adopt the same older terminology” (Murray, 127). Relatedly, neologisms are developed “to achieve linguistic economy—that is, to reduce a complex subject or action to a single word or phrase” (Murray, 127) For instance, we can clearly see the benefit of saying backseater rather than radar intercept officer or huffer cart instead of small vehicle used to blow air into the engines of a fighter plane to get them started (Murray, 127-28).

3.3       Humor and Psychological Benefits:

Looking over dictionaries of military language, it is striking how humorous many military terms are, especially the more ephemeral slang. This leads to another factor possibly impacting the coinage of new military terminology: the relief of psychological tension through humor (Murray, 128). Murray notes, for instance, that the naval fighter pilot term loiter “displays irony at its best”:

…for while [loiter’s] denotative meaning is ‘linger aimlessly; dawdle; proceed slowly’, a loitering fighter plane, as it moves through the sky at twice the speed of sound, does these things only by comparison with relatively more taxing maneuvers such as yanking and bonking. One cannot help believing that the person who coined it intended it as tongue-in-cheek understatement.

Other rather humorous terms include shit-hot, the “most elite kind of fighter pilot” (Murray, 124) and, from Algeo’s 1992 Among the New Words (67.1), Top gun-esque, meaning “in the style, or reminiscent, of the film Top Gun” (89), and Wargasm, “excessive patriotic emotional reaction to war, specif[ically] the Gulf War” (89). Additionally, terms like unwelcome visit for “invasion” and sparrow for an “air-to-air missile,” while not funny, work to dismiss, linguistically anyway, the perils of combat situations (Algeo, 67.1, 89, 88).

3.4       Ideological Inculcation:

3.4.1     Military Terminology Masks Violence:

Studies have shown that military terminology that masks violence and danger with humorous or benign language indeed effectively alters perception. For instance, “A March 25 Times Mirror poll showed that the euphemism of ‘collateral damage’ for ‘civilian casualties’ was startlingly effective in blunting public sentiment for Iraqi civilian dead: only twenty-one percent of those polled were ‘very concerned’ about the amount of ‘collateral damage’ produced by the war, while forty-nine percent of the respondents were ‘very concerned’ about ‘the number of civilian casualties and other unintended damage’ in Iraq” (Los Angeles Times, 25 Mar. 1991: A9 in Norris, 231).  Such studies have led to comments like those of Margot Norris, who claims that “The aim and function of military censorship and discursive control over the information and knowability of the…Persian Gulf War…[has] reinstated an acceptability of modern warfare once shaken by the nuclear terrors surrounding the Cold War and sobered by the military and political uncontrollability of Vietnam” (223).     Examples of Gulf War Vocabulary that Masks Violence:

Gulf War euphemisms are abundant. Consider, for instance, the following examples from Algeo’s studies in American Speech:

(From Algeo, 66.4):

Assertive disarmament: war (ironic)

Assets: weapons

Clean bombing: bombing with pinpoint* accuracy

Coercive potential: military power

Soften up, soften: bomb in preparation for a ground engagement

Techno-war: war fought with advanced technology

Technomilitary: pertaining to the military use of advanced technology

Runaway denial device: Bomb that scatters clusters of cratering bombs over a wide area to destroy air base runaways

(From Algeo, 67.1):

Boys of Baghdad; Baghdad Boys: CNN reporters in Iraq

Brilliant weapon: advanced form of a smart weapon

Discriminate deterrence: pinpoint* bombing

Fire and forget: automatically guided [missal]

Cleansed: cleared (of enemy troops)

Collateral damage: civilian casualties and damage incidental to the bombing of military targets; any incidental, undesirable consequence

*Thanks to Carol Percy for the observation that even Algeo’s own definitions sometimes function euphemistically: Algeo’s use of the term “pinpoint” bombing in his definitions, for instance, masks the realities of violence and death almost as much as the primary neologisms he is defining.

3.4.2       Military Language is Sexualized (And Sexual Language is Militarized):

               Another Form of Ideological Inculcation at Work:     The Female Anatomy and Military Slang, Rhymes, and Chants:

Military language, especially slang, rhymes, and chants, are overtly marked by references to sex. In her study, “Living a Life of Sex and Danger:  Women, Warfare, and Sex in Military Folk Rhymes,” Susanna Trnka discusses the prevalence, in Military cadence chants, to assert a soldier’s sexual prowess, to refer to women as commodities, and to reference female anatomy. She offers a number of examples of such chants. For instance, one chant begins, “If I die on the Russian front, / Box me up with a Russian cunt” (Carey in Trnka, 232); another goes, “Well, I wish all the ladies / Were bricks in a pile, / and I was a mason- / I’d lay ‘em all in style” (Johnson in Trnka, 233). Most notable, however, in the examples Trnka collected, is the equation of women with weaponry, as in “She had a pair of hips / Just like battleships” (Johnson in Trnka, 233) and “Tell my baby to forget about me, / I’ve got a new lover, the Artillery” (Johnson in Trnka, 233). Trnka claims that “The equation between women and weapons may in some cases be reinforced by military instructors. In the 1987 film Full Metal Jacket, Drill Instructor Hartman tells his troops, ‘Tonight you will sleep with your rifle. Give your rifle a girl’s name because this is the only pussy you people are going to get….You are married to this piece…and you will be faithful’” (Trnka, 233).       The Gun as Phallus:

Guns have long been symbolized as phalluses and vice versa. Various dictionaries (American and British) record the words gun and weapon as slang for penis and, of course, the equation is also central in psychoanalysis (Trnka, 235). Commenting on the common boot camp chant, “This is my rifle, / This is my gun. / This is for killing / This is for fun,” Trnka explains that it “conveys a powerful, if more subtle equation between war and sex.” (234). The rhyme importantly teaches recruits not to call their rifles guns, as would civilians, so as to enforce the distinction between a soldier’s rifle and the guns of a navy ship (234-35). But moreover, the rhyme’s equation of penis and gun “acculturate[s] the military recruit into a frame of mind that equates sex with violence, and killing with ‘manhood.’” (Trnka, 235). “While the initial purpose of the rhyme may appear…to distinguish between the rifle and the gun,” Trnka adds, “the rhyme in fact links them together…as if the two could be confused, as if they are in fact equivalent” (235).       Examples of Sexualized War Vocabulary:

Consider this short selection of highly sexualized (not to mention misogynistic and even racist) military terms from the Gulf War, World War II, and the Korean War:

Gulf War Terms: (From Algeo, 67.1)

Bam: Broad-assed marine, i.e. Female marine

Whore’s bath: bathing in an improvised wash basin

WWII and Korea Terms: (From Maurer)

Destroyer: erotic girl, large penis

Lakanuki: pseudo-Japanese for lack of nookie

Leg-spreaders: fighter pilot’s insignia

Piece of trade, pro, scupper: prostitute     Women Soldiers and Sexualized Military Language:

Considering the relatively new influx of women into the armed forces, one might question whether the equation of weapons with male anatomy and the representation of women as commodities and sexual targets, so common in military lingo, have begun to diminish. Addressing this question, Susan Linville claims that “weaponry has remained rigidly aligned with masculinist ideas of power,” and she offers an example from the 1997 film G.I. Jane as evidence. In G.I. Jane, Linville explains, although

the battered but defiant heroine ‘muscles’ her body through boot-camp endurance tests and proves her ability to ‘take it like a man,’…“Jane” validates phallic power by telling her abusive commanding officer to “suck my dick,” simultaneously disavowing and emphasizing her own “lack” and inaugurating a grim new primer of “dick” and “Jane” in the process” (Linville, 104)     Military Language Also Impacts How Civilians Talk About Sexuality:

Of course, the equation of military language and sexuality infiltrates common speech in civilian contexts, as in the examples “I tried to get her into bed but got shot down,” “He’s always hitting on women,” “What a bombshell,” “She’s really stunning,” “She’s dressed to kill!” and “She’s a knockout” (Beneke in Trnka, 238). As such, Section 3.4.2 bridges section 3.4’s general concern with the ideological ramifications of military vocabulary and the topic of the next section, civilian appropriations of military vocabulary in the public sphere.

4.     Civilian Appropriations of Military Vocabulary:

4.1       When Military terms enter the public sphere:

Civilian variations on military terms not only speak to the incredible flexibility and productivity of military discourse; they also speak to the linguistically-fueled instantiation of particular ideologies of warfare beyond the military ranks and into the public sphere. Yet, although the language of warfare adopted by the public often masks or diminishes real military violence, (just as it does among members of the military), the public’s humorous and often satirical appropriations of such terminology imply recognition of and resistance to the ideological manipulation at work in military discourse. Consider the following civilian adoptions and manipulations of Gulf War terminology:

4.2       Examples of Gulf War Terms that have Entered the Public Sphere:

4.2.1     The 1991 Word of the Year: “Mother of All”

The grand-prize winner of the American Dialect Society’s second New Word of the Year contest on December 29th, 1991 for “Overall New Word of the Year” was “mother of all.” “Mother of all” is a Gulf War term that alludes to Saddam Hussein’s statement, on January 17th, 1991 on Baghdad State Radio, that the American attack of  Iraq would result in the “mother of all battles.” This usage provoked numerous variations; the Journal of American Speech, for instance, recorded 37 variants of the form, as well as 3 radiations, with father of all, in their Winter, 1992 installment of “Among the New Words” and added 37 more variants in their following installment (Algeo, 67.1, 84). Algeo offers several different hypotheses as to why mother of all became so popular. He considers, for instance, that “the new form is a graft on older metaphorical senses of mother of (all)” as ‘the origin or cause of’ (OED, mother 2a in Algeo, 67.1, 85). But moreover, mother of all also echoes the sexually tabooed, motherfucker (Algeo, 67.1, 85) and “as an exclamation or emphasizer,” it “echoes the older Catholic profanity Mother of God or Sweet Mother of Jesus as well as the recent elliptical use of mother as a general term, as in ‘Put that mother [i.e., thing] down right here’ derived from an obscenity” (Algeo, 66.4, 380).

Several Variations on Mother of all include:

(From Algeo, 67.1, 87):

Mother of all bagels (to refer to a 140 pound bagel);

Mother of all covers (for the cover photograph of Vanity Fair magazine with a nude and pregnant Demi Moore

Mother of all jingles (for the advertising jingle “Pepsi Cola hits the spot”).*

*Here, notably, we have the conflation of a war-referent and a formerly taboo term, “hit the spot,” a phrase which, in the 1920’s, “carried suggestions of the clitoris,” so that to hit the spot implied “the ultimate in satisfaction” (Maurer, 6).

4.2.2     Other Gulf War Terminology Adopted by the Public:


Appropriations of the term operation from Operation Desert Storm involve a jokiness similar to variations on Mother of all. They also subtly bring out the absurdity of the Gulf War’s made-for-media title.

Uses of the term operation in the year 1991 include: 

(From Algeo, 67.1, 88):

Operation baby storm: Anticipated high number of births at Blanchfield Army Hospital, Fort Campbell, KY, nine months after the return of troops from the Gulf.

Operation Desert Stork: Anticipated high number of births at Winn Army Community Hospital, Fort Stewart, GA, nine months after the return of troops from the Gulf.

Operation bonus bracket: Brokerage house program to boost sales.

Operation desert share: Government distribution to US needy of food left over from the gulf war.


The use of the term Scud to refer to missiles (during the Cold War) was extended, in 1991, to the civilian domain of banking to describe: an “unenthusiastic broker or customer (in a brokerage house video to motivate sales). Scudded could also mean “maliciously insulted or undermined” and scudless meant “pleasant, carefree, as in ‘Y’all have a scudless day now’” (Algeo, 67.1, 88).


The term stealth developed several different meanings, some more specific to a military context than others: 1) “airplane designed with stealth technology,” as in the F-117Afighter (2) “to kill” (3) “hidden, undetected” (4) stealth woman: “woman covered in black, as a veiled Saudi woman” (5) stealth bathing suit: “bathing suit whose cut and pattern are designed to hide flaws in the figure of the wearer” (Algeo, 66.4).

5.     Military Language Infiltrates and Appropriates Other Specialized Vocabularies:

5.1       Hospital Discourse and Military Terminology:

Like the specialized language of the RN, the topic of Philip Kolin’s study, the soldier must account for a wide range of specialized terminology, often technical, from a number of fields, and in moving from one field to the next, must be “guided at all times by the quickest and safest ways of communicating ideas, [and] following orders” (193, Kolin). The RN, like the soldier, is also confronted with the taboo of death and thus must also “place a formal or polite veneer over what might be regarded as distasteful or discomforting.” And just as “behind some euphemisms…there is the nurse’s own jocular accommodation to the bitter experiences of hospital life” (Kolin, 193), the soldier, as we have seen, often embraces humor in slang. Moreover, the hospital, like the military, is characterized by hierarchies that are rendered explicit via honorifics, euphemisms, and even uniforms—just like the military. And of course, the army employs medical staff, and staff members that formerly worked for the military often end up in civilian hospitals, so there is no small degree of overlap between the military and hospital spheres. Indeed, this overlap has made its way into hospital terminology. Kolin posits, for instance, that the traditional male “orderlies” who “shave off hair before an operation and attend to male patients’ excretory functions” began to demand the titles of “nursing tech” or “emergency room tech” as a result of an “influx of military corpsmen into the part-time ranks of the civilian medical profession” who had “better than average command of nursing procedures, having benefited from their experience in the service” (Kolin, 194). In another example of military jargon infiltrating the civilian hospital, “nurses have christened water mattresses used in lowering a patient’s temperature flotation pads” (Kolin, 200).

5.2        Business Discourse and War Metaphors:

5.2.1     The Example of Shitcan:

Shitcan is a word preserved in US naval slang as late as 1980 but goes back to WWII, when it meant “trashcan.” Shitcan can also be used as a verb—to shitcan—meaning “not only to place in a shitcan, but also ‘to discard in a speedy and permanent way….A person who has been fired…is said to have been shitcanned” (Gilliland, 153-54). This example of the conflation of the scatological and the military in the context of business (the loss of a job), is just one instance of military terminology’s infiltration of the business sphere. In fact, business discourse abounds with war metaphors.

5.2.2   How Gender Impacts the Use of War Metaphors to Describe Businesspeople:

           Veronika Koller’s 2004 Study of Metaphors of War in Business Magazines:

In her 2004 study, Veronika Koller analyzed two corpora of U.S. and U.K. business magazine features to identify how metaphors of war functioned in descriptions of male versus female business executives. She also took note of other metaphors, for instance, those that equated businessmen and businesswomen with spouses, cheerleaders, angels, religious leaders, and animals, to determine the war metaphor’s prevalence. Koller’s results were interesting: businessmen were found to have “a wider range of metaphors allotted them: 33 as opposed to only 23 for businesswomen” (Koller, 12). But most interestingly, businesswoman were “more often described in terms of the war metaphor than businessmen”: 47.85 percent of the time woman were described by war metaphors as opposed to 31.05 percent of the time for men.

Koller offers three explanations for her results. She considers that “it could be the case that describing women managers in metaphorical terms perceived as overly ‘feminine’ seen as politically incorrect.” However, she acknowledges that working against this hypothesis is her finding that caregiver metaphors are the third most frequent to be used for female executives. Koller’s second explanation is that “the war metaphor is applied to businesswomen more often in order to attenuate its inherent aggressiveness.” Since a “comparatively small number of women have first-hand experience as soldiers and are thus more removed from the source domain,” Koller asserts, “their very gender and the different experiences it entails might help to ‘soften’ the impact of the war metaphor (12). Koller’s last hypothesis is that “the higher frequency of the WAR metaphor as employed to describe businesswomen relates to excessive hegemonic co-opting to either become part of a power elite (in the case of self-description) or to reproduce the dominant paradigm (in the case of third person reference)” (12-13). Koller’s theories, especially her third, are provocative and logical. However, Koller is missing a key factor in contextualizing her study in relation to actual office speech. Although, presumably, her corpora of business magazines never referred to businesswomen disparagingly via the use of war metaphors, in the world of office politics, there is certainly a distinction between war metaphors used complementary and those that are used negatively—and this distinction is likely gendered.

6.     Conclusion:

Clearly, the major challenge for addressing the impact of warfare and military terminology on the English language is one of scope. Military terminology is incredibly flexible. Not only are different military groups and, indeed, different wars characterized by particular vocabularies, military terminology also infiltrates the language of civilians and, conversely, is impacted by a number of specialized civilian vocabularies. Although this article makes no attempt to cover all of the loci of linguistic creativity marked by military terminology and the language of warfare, it offers a snapshot of the ubiquity of military discourse and its clear impact on the development of English vocabulary.

Works Cited:

Algeo, John. “Where Do All the New Words Come From?” American Speech 55.4 (1980): 264


Algeo, John, and Adele Algeo. “Among the New Words.” American Speech 66.4 (1991): 380


---. “Among the New Words.” American Speech 67.1 (1992): 83-93.

Gilliland, C. Herbert. “U.S. Naval Slang: Shitcan.” American Speech 55.2 (1980): 153-54.

Koller, Veronika. “Businesswomen and War Metaphors: ‘Possessive, Jealous, and


      Journal of Sociolinguistics 8.1 (2004): 3-22.

Linville, Susan E. “‘The “Mother” of all Battles’: ‘Courage Under Fire’ and the Gender

       Integrated Military.” Cinema Journal 39.2 (2000): 100-120.

Maurer, D.W. “Language and the Sex Revolution: World War I through World War II.”

       American Speech 51.1/2 (1976): 5-24.

Murray, Thomas E. “The Language of Naval Fighter Pilots.” American Speech 61.2 (1986): 121


Norris, Margot. “Military Censorship and the Body Count in the Persian Gulf War.” Cultural

       Critique 19 (1991): 223-45.

Silkett, Wayne A. Words of War. Military Affairs 49.1 (1985): 13-16.

Trnka, Susanna. “Living a Life of Sex and Danger:  Women, Warfare, and Sex in Military Folk

       Rhymes.” Western Folklore 54.3 (1995): 232-241.