Certainly, we owe soldiers a debt of gratitude for fighting to defend our country, but did you know that we also owe them thanks for all they’ve contributed to the English language? It’s true! Many of the idioms and expressions we use in modern English can be traced back to military terms from around the world. From the halls of Montezuma to the shores of Tripoli, the origins of some words and phrases we use every day may surprise you.
During the American Civil War, prisoners of war were kept incarcerated in makeshift facilities. The prison guards drew a line around the perimeter, instructing the prisoners that anyone who crossed the line would be shot on sight, making it the “dead line.”
On a ship, the crew took their drinking water from a cask called the “scuttlebutt,” and whenever a few men gathered to take a break, gossip and hearsay about the voyage, their superiors, or other events surely followed. Eventually, the word for the water barrel came to refer to the petty gossip itself.
Bite the Bullet
Battlefield surgery was no laughing matter: unsanitary conditions, lack of supplies, lack of postoperative care. When soldiers were injured during a war and anesthetics like chloroform or whiskey had run out, doctors had no choice but to proceed with amputations, even if the patient was fully awake and cognizant. In such circumstances, the soldier was often given a bullet to bite down on to help him channel the pain and keep still.
In his book Sticklers, Sideburns, and Bikinis: The Military Origins of Everyday Words and Phrases, author Graeme Donald writes that the term for sideburns was originally “burnsides,” named after famed Civil War general Ambrose Burnside, who wore his facial hair in this distinctive fashion. Although Burnside had some successes in the war, he was not exactly the most brilliant military tactician, and because of his reputation for getting things wrong, the term “burnsides” was jokingly switched to “sideburns.”
Heard It Through the Grapevine
During the first days of telegraphy, the wires were strung all over the country in patterns that sometimes looked like grapevines. Instant communication made disseminating news easier, but it also made for increased inaccuracy and errors. Civil War soldiers called it “the grapevine” because of the way the wires twisted around the terrain, and because it reminded them of the way information wended its way through multiple parties. The term also insinuated that since grapevines were tended mainly by poor farmers, the information was not to be trusted.
This acronym, standing for “fouled up beyond all recognition” originated in the U.S. Army. Its first recorded use was in 1944, although soldiers had probably been using this slang term for many years before then.
Three Sheets to the Wind
This naval phrase, describing someone who’s had too much to drink, descends from the days of wooden ships. The drunkard’s clothes were usually in a state of disarray, with his shirttails flapping, making him look like an untended ship whose sails were loose and blowing carelessly in the wind.
Used by armies all over the world, this term originally referred to the small party that was sent out in advance of the main body of troops in order to plot a course or chart a terrain. It was also sometimes called the advance guard or the vanguard. The French version was appropriated by the arts-and-culture world to refer to anyone working at the forefront of creativity or experimentation.
The invention of wireless telegraphy was a huge benefit to ships, which were now able to call for help when they were in distress. The code S.O.S. was first used by the Germans in 1905 and was eventually adopted by all nations for both commercial and military vessels. The code isn’t an acronym for “save our souls,” “send out supplies,” or another message; it actually doesn’t stand for anything. The letters were chosen because their Morse code transcription—dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dot-dot-dot—is unmistakable.
In medieval times, the sport of jousting, in which two knights charged at each other, each trying to knock the other off his horse, was originally called tilting. To run at “full tilt” was to run at top speed.
With Flying Colors
Flags flown at sea were subject to strict and complex rules; the only time a warship would lower its flag (also called its colors) would be to acknowledge the passing of a higher-ranked ship, or to announce surrender in battle. A ship proudly flying its flag after a battle would have been advertising victory.