How America’s Wars Have Changed The English Language

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Speech, much like the world, is in a constant state of flux. The way that wars alter the world, they also modify the way we speak and redefine the way we think. As troops have invaded nations, slang too has invaded our vernacular.


As early as the Civil War, military reporter R.W. McAlpine wrote about slang and its impact on American speech. In his article, “A Word About Slang” in the June 1865 issue of United States Service Magazine, he reflected that war slang was a perversion of the language as a result of the urgency of battle. More contemporary writers like Seth Lerer, author of “Inventing English: a Portable History of the Language,” suggest that slang can instead be considered by modern authors to be a form of innovation.

Lerer wrote, “War always changes language. It brings in new words, changes attitudes, [and] shifts dialects.”

Through wars, some words have changed or garnered new meanings while others were newly coined for specific places and things. During the Civil War, “skedaddle” became “skeet” or “scoot.” In World War I, the word “lousy,” which was intended to describe lice infestations, came to mean weary. In the same token, “trench coat” — a jacket worn in the trenches during battle — to this day remains an iconic outerwear style. “Jeep” came from the letters “G.P.” emblazoned on the side of each general purpose vehicle used during World War II.

In 1950, prior to the Korean War, novelist Robert C. Ruark wrote in a syndicated newspaper column, “That seems to be one of the nicer things about war — it enriches the language so.”

It is no coincidence then that during World War I, hundreds of words and phrases became part of our everyday speech. Wilfred Funk, author of “Word Origins and Their Romantic Stories,” estimated that for each year the United States was involved in World War II, we added more than 6,000 words to the American vocabulary.

The brutality of war has and will continue to spawn thousands of euphemisms that we use in everyday speech. In fact, wars have impacted American speech so profoundly, that they have inspired a series of dictionaries and anthologies to serve as record of the terms and phrases coined during each.

In 2011, author and slang expert Paul Dickson produced the third edition of his book “War Slang: American Fighting Words and Phrases Since the Civil War,” in which he shows how language mirrors the unique experience of each conflict from the Civil War through the Iraq War. Arranged chronologically, the book depicts the linguistic tone of each war — World War II language is as transformative and innovative as the world was at the time, just as Vietnam War phrases showed to be as frustrated and cynical as the soldiers serving its cause.

Dickson wrote during the Vietnam War, the slang was “brutal, direct, and geared to high-tech jungle warfare,” and for the first time in American war history produced a vocabulary of defeat. This particular era spawned a number of new, casual designations for death, like “greased” and “blown away.”

From the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, a number of slang terms have made their way into regular usage. “Homeland” became the designation for the domestic United States. The term “ground zero” also went from being a term for an area destroyed by nuclear attack to a popularized metaphor for what was left of the World Trade Center, as well as any area leveled by wartime destruction.

However unintentionally, soldiers have become architects of language and profound agents of change throughout history.  

Words are paltry things even when compared to peaceful, everyday human experience, and war words are often invented to describe things that are brutally indescribable, bring humor to things that are not funny, and create designations for things that are otherwise unidentifiable.

U.S. Army National Guard photo by Sgt. Michael Uribe

On Nov, 10, 2004, Army Staff Sgt. David Bellavia knew that he stood a good chance of dying as he tried to save his squad.

Bellavia survived the intense enemy fire and went on to single-handedly kill five insurgents as he cleared a three-story house in Fallujah during the iconic battle for the city. For his bravery that day, President Trump will present Bellavia with the Medal of Honor on Tuesday, making him the first living Iraq war veteran to receive the award.

In an interview with Task & Purpose, Bellavia recalled that the house where he fought insurgents was dark and filled with putrid water that flowed from broken pipes. The battle itself was an assault on his senses: The stench from the water, the darkness inside the home, and the sounds of footsteps that seemed to envelope him.

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(U.S. Army/Pvt. Stephen Peters)

With the Imperial Japanese Army hot on his heels, Oscar Leonard says he barely slipped away from getting caught in the grueling Bataan Death March in 1942 by jumping into a choppy bay in the dark of the night, clinging to a log and paddling to the Allied-fortified island of Corregidor.

After many weeks of fighting there and at Mindanao, he was finally captured by the Japanese and spent the next several years languishing under brutal conditions in Filipino and Japanese World War II POW camps.

Now, having just turned 100 years old, the Antioch resident has been recognized for his 42-month ordeal as a prisoner of war, thanks to the efforts of his friends at the Brentwood VFW Post #10789 and Congressman Jerry McNerney.

McNerney, Brentwood VFW Commander Steve Todd and Junior Vice Commander John Bradley helped obtain a POW award after doing research and requesting records to surprise Leonard during a birthday party last month.

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(U.S. Marine Corps/Staff Sgt. Andrew Ochoa)

Editor's Note: This article by Gina Harkins originally appeared on Military.com, a leading source of news for the military and veteran community.

Hundreds of Marines will join their British counterparts at a massive urban training center this summer that will test the leathernecks' ability to fight a tech-savvy enemy in a crowded city filled with innocent civilians.

The North Carolina-based Kilo Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, will test drones, robots and other high-tech equipment at Muscatatuck Urban Training Center near Butlerville, Indiana, in August.

They'll spend weeks weaving through underground tunnels and simulating fires in a mock packed downtown city center. They'll also face off against their peers, who will be equipped with off-the-shelf drones and other gadgets the enemy is now easily able to bring to the fight.

It's the start of a four-year effort, known as Project Metropolis, that leaders say will transform the way Marines train for urban battles. The effort is being led by the Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, based in Quantico, Virginia. It comes after service leaders identified a troubling problem following nearly two decades of war in the Middle East: adversaries have been studying their tactics and weaknesses, and now they know how to exploit them.

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(Reuters/Carlos Barria)

WASHINGTON/RIYADH (Reuters) - President Donald Trump imposed new U.S. sanctions onIran on Monday following Tehran's downing of an unmanned American drone and said the measures would target Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.

Trump told reporters he was signing an executive order for the sanctions amid tensions between the United States and Iran that have grown since May, when Washington ordered all countries to halt imports of Iranian oil.

Trump also said the sanctions would have been imposed regardless of the incident over the drone. He said the supreme leaders was ultimately responsible for what Trump called "the hostile conduct of the regime."

"Sanctions imposed through the executive order ... will deny the Supreme Leader and the Supreme Leader's office, and those closely affiliated with him and the office, access to key financial resources and support," Trump said.

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