Military Slang: Language of the United States Armed Forces

US Air Force Thunderbirds

Photo of U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds was taken by Don Sullivan

Note: The following article contains language that may be offensive to some. Although I do not swear very often myself, and I use swear words sparingly in my fiction, the article is posted because most civilians have little knowledge of military slang. If a writer is creating a character who is in the military or has been in the military, that character will use terminology that is not common in a civilian setting. Writers need to consider terms or phrases that would be used in their character’s profession to add realism to their fiction and help bring their character and his or her world alive.

All professions have their own slang; terms which are understood by those in the same occupation, but are often without meaning to those who are not part of that secret club. These special words and phrases have a way of bonding members of a profession. The strongest example of this is the United States Military, whose servicemen have been using slang since the Civil War. Military slang is an evolving language with new terms cropping up with each new war and old terms falling into disuse. Some military slang has even found its way into civilian use.

Military slang has been documented in the United State Army since 1785 when the phrase “kick the bucket” began to be used as a euphemism for death, but its usage increased during the Civil War (Dickson, 4). It is still used today even among the civilian population. The acronym “AWOL,” meaning “absent without leave,” came into use during the Civil War when soldiers who were caught and returned to their units were required to wear the acronym on a sign around their neck while they were in camp (Dickson, 3). This acronym is still in use today and is so commonly known that any civilian can identify it as referring to a soldier who left base without permission.

Several phrases from World War I were used only during that war and fell into disuse. The doughboys called a small French child “Tadpole,” (Dickson, 101) a phrase whose original slang usage has been lost. Other phrases that have fallen into disuse are “dirty neck” for a French prostitute and “dirty puss” for a young French woman (Dickson, 54).

However, some of the phrases military men used during World War I have survived to present day use although their meaning has been modified. The phrase “mother ship,” used to describe “a vessel that accompanies submarines and acts as their base” (Dickson, 81), is frequently used today in science fiction to describe a large spaceship used as an intergalactic base for smaller spaceships.

Soldiers in World War I used the term “buddy” to describe a fellow soldier. After the war the term “buddy” became tinged with disrespect. It was used to describe a “hitchhiker or panhandler” (Dickson, 45). By the time of World War II and the Korean War “buddy” had gone into back into favor and meant a friend or companion (Azamber), the same meaning that it has today.

The phrase “baptism by fire” was used during World War I to mean a soldier’s first contact with the enemy. According to Dr. Eugene Azamber, a retired Fresno City College professor who served in the United States Air Force as a military policeman during the Korean War, “baptism by fire” was still used by servicemen during World War II and the Korean War. The phrase has found its way into civilian language to indicate anyone who is exposed to a difficult situation for the first time, usually in a work environment. Azamber speculates that military personal who went to college on the G.I. Bill after they were discharged or entered the workforce brought military terms into civilian usage.

During World War I and World War II the Army Aviation Corps were in charge of military aircraft. Soldiers who did not fly as part of their duties were known as “ground squirrels” (Dickson, 67). This charming phrase was still being used during the Korean War after the Army Aviation Corps became a separate branch of the military and renamed the United States Air Force on September 12, 1947 (Azamber). But “ground squirrel” has fallen into disuse by today’s airmen (Vines).

World War II brought about a vast change in military slang as language and acronyms became far less innocent and wholesome. No longer were servicemen using phrases that they were comfortable repeating to their grandmothers, and newspapers began to subtly change a word or two to make an acronym suitable for publication. Language became a way of firmly setting servicemen apart from civilians.

The acronym “SNAFU”, meaning “situation normal, all fucked up” entered the military vernacular during World War II and has never left. During World War II and the Korean War jet aircraft were known as “blow jobs” (Dickson, 130). Military men even invented a new unit of measurement – a “cunt hair” – to mean something that was smaller than a millimeter (Dickson, 145). A phrase that American servicemen borrowed from the British was “belly cousin” which meant a man who had sex with a woman that you had had sex with (Dickson, 125). A woman who was fond of men in uniform was called “khaki wacky” (Dickson, 181). This phrase was still in use during the Korean War (Azamber).

During the Korean War acronyms came into heavy use with “B and B” for booze and broads (Dickson, 236), “I and I” for intercourse and intoxication (Dickson, 246). “B and B” fell into disuse, but “I and I” was still being used during the Vietnam War (Dickson, 277). Other acronyms invented by military personnel during the Korean War are still in use. Servicemen are frequently known to use FIGMO, which means “fuck it, got my orders” (Dickson, 241) to describe a situation where they are being told to do something that seems unnecessary, stupid, or likely to backfire on a superior officer (Vines, Zahn). Another acronym that is often heard during military planning sessions is SWAG which stands for “scientific wild ass guess” (Dickson, 365) (Vines).

The phrase “hanger queen” (Dunnigan, 149) to describe an aircraft that malfunctioned so much that it was always in the hanger being repaired started during the Korean War, but the phrase is still used today in the Air Force. Azamber described an incident with a B-29 who was considered to be the ultimate “hanger queen.” The plane was stationed in Georgia, but had flown a mission to Castle Air Force Base in Merced, California. Every time the pilot took off to return to his home base in Georgia, something would go wrong with the plane such as an engine would start smoking, an electrical malfunction, or some other problem that would force him to return to Castle Air Force Base. The “hanger queen” plane eventually had many of its parts replaced including all four of its engines and was still stranded. Azamber reported, “Guys on the base were placing bets on whether the pilot would ever make it back to Georgia.” It was three months before the plane was finally able to fly well enough for the pilot to return to his home base.

One term popular during the Korean War is used by servicemen today, but usually only those who are stationed in Korea. Servicemen stationed in-country during the Korean War began calling a girlfriend his “moose,” from a Korean word that sounded similar. According to Staff Sergeant Reinhold Zahn, recently retired from the United States Air Force, the term “moose” is still heard on a base in Korea, but not usually used when the serviceman returns stateside. The Korean language was the inspiration for another term servicemen use: “deep kimchi,” meaning “big trouble” (Dunnigan, 286). The term was borrowed from the name of a Korean delicacy which contained hot peppers.

A need for an internationally recognized code for radio communications led to the creation of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet which was implemented on March 1, 1956 (Private Fly). The NATO Phonetic Alphabet was fully in use by the United States military when the Vietnam War started in 1959 (Vietnam). Soldiers in Vietnam rapidly embraced the insult possibilities in the new alphabet. The phrase “Alpha Hotel” meant “asshole,” (Dickson, 260) and “November Foxtrot Whiskey” meant “No fucking way” (Dickson, 283). Major David Vines, who enlisted in the United States Marine Corps in 1976, reported that he heard “Alpha Hotel” used while he was in the Marines. After his four years with the Marines was completed, Vines served for nineteen years in the United States Air Force. He said he never heard “Alpha Hotel” used in the Air Force, but “November Foxtrot Whiskey” is still used by servicemen (Vines).

Vietnam soldiers also invented new phrases such as “the Crotch” for the Marine Corps. James Lee Burke uses “the Crotch” in his best-selling mystery novels featuring Dave Robicheaux and his friend Clete Purcell, two Vietnam veterans. Vines reported that the phrase was no longer used when he was in the Marine Corps. However, he verified that another phrase from the Vietnam era, “airborne copulation,” meaning “I don’t give a flying fuck” (Dickson, 260) is still being used.

Two new acronyms came out of the Vietnam War, WETSU which meant “We eat this shit up” (Dickson, 295), and FNG which meant “fucking new guy” (Dickson, 271). WETSU is no longer in use, but FNG is still heard when soldiers are describing a new person in their unit (Vines).

The Gulf War with its emphasis on scud missiles and bombing missions inspired new phrases. The phrase “love scud” to describe a penis (Dickson, 316) and “spammed” to describe being given an unpleasant mission (Dickson 328) did not stay in military vernacular for long. A sniper who worked at night was referred to as a “vampire” (Dickson, 331). Major Vines stated that during his time in the Marines, where he had been trained as a sniper and served in combat, the term was shorted to just “vamp.” A “Ghost Rider” was a pilot who flew an F-117A Nighthawk Stealth fighter jet at night and slept during the day (Dickson, 310). But the phrase “turn ‘em and burn ‘em” to describe getting aircraft back into the air quickly after a mission (Dickson, 330) is still used in the Air Force (Vines). Another phrase from the Gulf War that is still heard is “goat rope” to describe a chaotic situation, although Vines reported that the preferred term now is “cluster fuck.”

Different branches of the service have developed their own slang. Naval personnel stationed on a ship refer to the quarters shared by six officers as “six chick” or “six dick” rooms depending on the sex of the occupants (Waller, Air Warriors, 21). A Naval pilot on his or her first carrier cruise is called a “nugget” (Waller, 18). When the sky is dark, the Naval pilots refer to it as being “black as a bag of assholes” (Waller, 15).

In today’s Air Force the World War II phrase “belly cousin” has been replaced with “dick in-laws” to describe two men who have slept with the same woman (Vines). But even within the Air Force different units have their own slang terms. In the Oklahoma Air National Guard where Vines was stationed on active duty, when the airmen would fly to conferences on other bases they would be debriefed about which bars in the area to avoid. However, the airmen viewed this as more of an unintentionally helpful hint since those were the bars they would immediately head to as soon as they were off duty.

The airmen nicknamed these bars “Menopause Manor” due to the number of unattractive older women who hung out there, willing to trade meaningless sex for a little attention from a younger man. They called the women “bufferillos,” or “beeferillos.” Vines said the usual statement as soon as they were finished with the conference for that day was, “Let’s head to Menopause Manor and see the bufferillos.” This slang must have been unique to that particular branch of the Air Force because retired Staff Sergeant Reinhold Zahn, who has been stationed overseas and ended his career at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico said he had not heard that term used.

A military term that has entered the civilian life dating scene is “wingman.” A wingman is the second aircraft in flight formation (Dickson, 331). But now even college boys use the phrase “wingman” to describe a buddy who will flirt with a woman’s girlfriend so that his friend can romance his selected target. Even dogs are now wearing T-shirts that say “wingman.”

In the military there are nicknames that pertain to a particular unit. The 150th New Mexico Air National Guard, based at Kirtland Air Force Base in Albuquerque, New Mexico is known as “the Tacos” because of their location (Zahn). The 20th Special Operations Squadron, stationed at Hulburt Field in the Florida panhandle, is known as the Green Hornet Squadron. Their pilots fly the MH-53 Pave Low helicopter, described as “the most sophisticated helicopter in the world” (Waller, The Commandos, 196). The radio call sign during flights for the squadron is “Cowboy.” The pilots refer to themselves as “Cowboys,” and their theme song is Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive” due to the lyrics “I’m a cowboy, on a steel horse I ride / And I’m wanted dead or alive” (Waller 196).

Air Force personnel have a fondness for their aircraft that translates into acronyms and nicknames. The F-16 Fighting Falcon jet fighter is known as “Lawn Dart” and “Viper” (Dickson, 307. The F-4G Wild Weasel fighter jet is nicknamed “Double Ugly” (Dickson, 307). A B-52 bomber is called a “BUFF,” an acronym for “Big Ugly Fat Fucker” (Dickson, 303). Some of the units are so fond of the nickname of their aircraft that they have it put on their uniform patches. The A-7D Corsair II air support aircraft is called “SLUF,” an acronym for “Short Little Ugly Fucker” (Dickson, 327). Vines reported that he had seen unit patches for the pilots of the A-7D Corsair II air support aircraft that had “Super SLUF” on them.

Other aircraft nicknames include “Warthog” for the A-10 Thunderbolt (Dickson, 331). An F-15E is called a “Beagle” or “Mudhen” (Dickson, 301) (Best). The C-130 Hercules transport airplane is called “Herky Turkey” (Best). The B-1 Bomber is called “Bone” (Best). F-4 Phantom, an interceptor and ground support bomber, was flown by both the Blue Angels and the Thunderbirds. Its nickname was “Rhino.”

One aircraft developed a nickname not because of its appearance, but because of its pilots. The F-15A, F-15B, F-15C, and F-15D fighter jets became known as “Swallows” after an F-15 pilot and his co-pilot were caught in the cockpit of the aircraft while one was performing fellatio on the other one (Vines). Staff Sergeant Zahn had heard the story of the pilots’ indiscretion even though it did not happen at the base where he was stationed. He commented that in the Air Force stories like that had a way of spreading rapidly. In the military even an aircraft’s nickname can serve as a subtle warning to adhere to proper behavior.

Military slang bonds servicemen together, giving them a shared language. Each war in our country’s history has brought new terms into our military’s vernacular. Our culture has been enriched as some of these terms have found their way into civilian use.

“Best and Worst Aircraft Nicknames :: F-16.net.” F-16.net – The Ultimate F-16, F-22, F-35 Reference. Web. 2 Dec. 2010. <http://www.f-16.net/f-16_forum_viewtopic-t-3752-start-15.html&gt;.

Dickson, Paul. War Slang: Fighting Words and Phrases of Americans from the Civil War to the Gulf War. New York: Pocket, 1994. Print.

Dunnigan, James F., and Albert A. Nofi. Dirty Little Secrets: Military Information You’re Not Supposed to Know. New York: Morrow, 1990. Print.

“History of the NATO Phonetic Alphabet Ly.” PrivateFly. Web. 08 Dec. 2010. <http://blog.privatefly.com/?p=307&gt;.

“Vietnam War History – What Really Happened in the Vietnam War.” The Vietnam War History, Pictures, Photos, Timelines and Facts. Web. 08 Dec. 2010. <http://www.vietnam-war.0catch.com/vietnam_war_warhistory.htm&gt;.

Vines, David. Telephone interview. December 7, 2010.

Waller, Douglas C. Air Warriors: the inside Story of the Making of a Navy Pilot. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1998. Print.

Waller, Douglas C. The Commandos: the inside Story of America’s Secret Soldiers. New York:

Simon & Schuster, 1994. Print

Zahn, Reinhold. Telephone interview. December 7, 2010.

Photo of U.S. Air Force Thunderbirds was taken by Don Sullivan

https://www.flickr.com/photos/donsullivan/

https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc-nd/2.0/

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