05 January 2011

You Can Always Tell a Soldier

There are certain phrases and words that nearly always indicate that someone either is or has served in the U.S. military. Or grown up in a military family.

There are boot camp truisms, for example, burned forever in our brains--sayings such as "Don't call me 'sir'--I work for a living" and "This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine."

Sometimes, because they're so engrained and automatic, they slip out into civil conversation. If you listen to people carefully, it can be as telling as a too-short haircut or a American Legion lapel pin. We are what we talk, as well as what we wear.

Sometimes, you can identify when someone was in the service, but this isn't always a logical pursuit. In the late 1980s, for example, our drill sergeants would often tell us "it looks like you've polished your shoes with a Hershey bar." They thought the phrase hilarious.

That never made sense to me, until I figured out--years later--that the phrase probably originated in the World War II "brown boot" Army. In the 1980s, we wore shiny black boots, but our jokes were threadbare. My drill sergeants were too young to remember Vietnam, much less WWII or Korea, but they still spoke of Hershey Bars.

Sometimes, you can identify in which branch of service an individual served, by the words he or she chooses: Is a helicopter a "helo" (Navy/Marine) or a "chopper" (Army)? Is someone who flies a plane a "pilot" (Air Force) or an "aviator" (Navy/Marine/Air Force)? Does someone visibly flinch when you call a ship a "boat"? They're probably Navy. Does someone react when they hear the words "ex-Marine"? They're probably a Marine. "Ex-Marine"? There's no such animal. The Corps is eternal.

"No such animal"? I also learned that one from drill sergeants White and Brown, back in the day. "Ain't nothing but a thing." I wonder if they knew they were providing more wisdom, words, and culture than I'd retain from any other single formal educational experience. I don't remember high school algebra, but I do remember my three general orders.

My two favorite linguistic markers of military service involve mispronunciations:

One is "orientate," as used in the sentence "let me orientate you to my map." The correct word is "orient," of course. The mistake is extremely common in the military, however, and made more noticeable because of the frequency with which the word is used in military circles. We must've all had the same teachers, instructing us to utilize the language in such a way.

("Utilize" vs. "use"? That's another good and frequent mis-utilized militarism!)

My all-time favorite government-issued mispronunciation, however, is the word "cache." It means a collection of provisions stored in a hidden location: "Upon searching the house, we found a large cache of weapons."

Unfortunately, the word "cache" isn't pronounced the way it looks--it's pronounced "kash." Soldiers nearly always pronounce it like the word "cachet" ("kashay"), which means "a mark or quality of distinction and individuality."

Pronounce "cache" correctly in your next military briefing, and you'll generate a certain cachet yourself. You can bet cash-money on it.

The next time you catch a mil-familiar phrase or word in a stranger's speech, you might politely inquire if they ever served in the military. If it turns out they were, further take the opportunity to thank them for their service.

Because, even if they're not always perfectly utilized, words matter.


  1. And don't forget acronyms. WTF? NCOIC, HMFIC, OMT, S2, etc. We can talk in a language other humans can understand...or sometimes we can't even understand but will never admit.

  2. I hear the words skivies and gedunk and know that those people are military or prior service. There is so much that as a Navy brat I heard and thought it was "normal" language and now realize it's only in the military circles that it makes sense.

  3. Roger that. And that common vernacular enables those wonderfully cryptic phone conversations that leaves our spouses (with no military background) wondering how a novel's worth of nuance was just communicated in a few terse sentences...

  4. When I first got to the fleet I often referred to the barracks as dorms before catching myself. Then when I returned to college after my enlistment I did the opposite, asking classmates if they lived in the barracks. For some time after returning home I tried to do away with military lingo and communicate with other civilians like a "normal" civilian. However, I've since given that up and after reading this post I must say there's something I like about the way we talk. Call me a weirdo, but to me it sort of demonstrates some kind of connectedness. Thanks for sharing

    "Stand by" and "Say again" are probably my most used military phrases...

  5. "Say again..."
    "Stand by..."
    "Wait one..."

    There are a lot of tells, including posture!

  6. Don't know about the other services, but when I hear someone call someone else 'Boot', I know he was Navy. Boot for boot camp and not knowing anything about anything. Aye Aye and Okay Skipper also makes me think they are/were Navy.

  7. Wow! Really great stuff both here and on Facebook! I started giggling when I read Christina and Coffeypot's memories from the Marines and Navy, respectively, because it reminded me of a few Thanksgivings in which we had nearly all branches represented. With all the differing jargon and acronyms, it was like our own little Tower of Babel!

    Other things it reminded me of: "head," "latrine," "rack," "hootch," "passageway."

    "Say again," being an official Army communications radio-procedure term ("pro-word"), is a particular favorite of mine, too. Remember a 1989-1993 TV sitcom called "Major Dad," about a Marine Corps family? I remember hearing the lead actor talking about one of the things he learned through the scripts was to say "say again" instead of "what did you say" or "huh"?

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments! Keep 'em coming, and thanks for reading Red Bull Rising!


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