Lingo Born in War - Armed Forces Week on BTR


Marines training in 2005. Image from U.S. Marine Corps, photo by Lance Corporal Brandon M. Gale.

Slang comes from everywhere. It is born in the streets where less formally educated people discover new ways to communicate in a language they can call their own. Slang is invented in cultural melting-pot urban centers as a method for communication between peoples born of different languages. Slang rises from artistic expression, popular culture iconicity, and the many sporting cultures that exist throughout the world. Slang, really does come from everywhere.

If there is one common denominator to be pulled from each of the examples provided above it is this – esotericism. Finding a new way to express or refer to a particular thing and to a particular small group of people creates the feeling of belongingness, or perhaps taking it even a little further—exclusivity. The ability to speak in a tongue that is only understood by people one considers his or her peers is an intentional exercise in boasting membership. A great example of this is found in Steven Spielberg’s Saving Private Ryan. When the young, raw, and terrified Corporal Upham is forced to join a crew of soldiers deep into retreating enemy territory for a special operation, his status as a “non-member” is quickly established and vocalized:

“Brotherhood? What do ya know about brotherhood? Get a load o’ this guy.” (The other soldiers laugh)….

Private Reiben: “Even if you think the mission is Fubar, sir?”

Captain Miller: “Especially if you think the mission’s Fubar.”

Corporal Upham: “What’s Fubar?”

Private Mellish: “Uh, it’s German.”

Corporal Upham: “Hm. I never heard of that.”

Of course, it is obvious to the rest of the small outfit, and most keen viewers, that the word is not German at all, but instead holds a definition that one has to earn. After a few further references to the acronymic term, and Upham’s realization that he stands on the outside of his admired “brotherhood,” Corporal Upham finally receives the rite, and the inside language is bestowed upon him.

Nothing exists in of itself until it has a language. The loyalty and brotherhood that forms during a time of war is something that I can say I am fortunate enough to have never fully grasped; and let me hope I don’t ever have to. It is clear that a certain amount of respect was attached to specific language, words, acronyms, and phrases. But when these terms come to be a part of our conventional language at home, have we somehow cheapened the institution from which they were born? The truth is, I don’t know, because I have never been a soldier and therefore cannot relate to any emotions arisen when I hear a businessmen relate to cold calls as front lines; when I hear a repair man say he spent the day in the trenches, or when a rapper tells me to listen up as he prepares to drop bombs on me.

Much of our vocabulary was born in the military. Mark Peters of the online journal Psychology Today lists the benefits of such age-old practice. “Wars always generate new slang, which serves crucial psychological functions for soldiers. Among the benefits: Lightening the mood; Establishing identity; Connecting with home; Venting frustration; and dehumanizing the enemy.”[1]

I spent this past Memorial Day Weekend in New York City, where I live, and for those readers who are unaware, it is a weekend in which our city is completely overrun by Marines, Naval Officers, and many other members of the U.S. Armed Forces. For any of the young men and women I spoke to, they were kind and courteous, as if their duties of respect stretch far beyond the bridges of their battleships. When eavesdropping on conversations between themselves at restaurants, bars, or just the sidewalk as I prepared to write this piece, I was never surprised to not-hear anything I couldn’t recognize as their own language. The speed at which slang is appropriated because of social media has removed that rite of passage, a la “Fubar,” that once tied itself to the lexicon of war.

[1] Peters, Mark. “Slang: Words at War” in Psychology Today. May 31, 2011.